Adult stem cells - Potential must be fully explored

The advances made in medicine over the past century and a half have been phenomenal.

Cures have been found for some of the most virulent diseases that were killing millions of people annually.

Effective treatment has been discovered for cholera, anthrax, and rabies, while dreaded diseases like tuberculosis, smallpox, and poliomyelitis were virtually eradicated. The return of some strains of such diseases is a grim warning that there is no room for complacency.

Stem cell research provides some of the most exciting potential to tackle the various medical challenges that have so far defied treatment. In launching the Adult Stem Cell Foundation of Ireland, Professor Colin McGuckin called on the Government and health authorities to facilitate the wide collection and storage of adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

There has been religious controversy over the use of embryonic stem cells, but Prof McGuckin, who is an adviser to the Vatican on stem cells and a director of the Cell Therapy Research Institute in Lyon, France, notes that the Vatican has no problems with the use of adult stem cells, which include cells from the blood of umbilical cords.

There is currently, however, a ban on the collection of adult stem cells from umbilical cords at the country’s three main maternity hospitals — the Rotunda, Holles Street and the Coombe. This means that the richest potential sources are being ignored.

Stem cells can also be extracted from bone marrow and adipose fat, but this tends to be much more invasive, and the only place in this country that allows those practices is the private Mount Carmel Hospital in Dublin. But even those stem cells must be sent to Britain or elsewhere for storage.

Adult stem cells are now used in the treatment of over 70 diseases, including osteoarthritis, leukaemia, along and both heart and liver disease, Prof McGuckin said.

Stem cell research has also shown some promise in the treatment of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as the treatment of cerebral palsy and children with congenital bone malformations, such as cleft palates. Irish children have to travel to Freeman Hospital in Newcastle or Great Ormond Street Hospital in London to get stem cell treatment.

Of course, it should be stressed that the enormous potential of stem cell treatment is still not proven. Hopefully it will provide the key to cures, but it would be a mistake to assume that it is a panacea. This must be demonstrated by solid medical evidence.

The Government and the health authorities must formulate a realistic policy in this area as a matter of urgency. People are living longer as a result of the effective treatment and eradication of other diseases.

In the process, they inevitably become prone to suffer from some of those diseases that have not yet been tackled effectively. It is therefore important in the interest of everyone — young and old alike — that the potential of stem cell treatment be properly investigated.

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