Stem Cell Research: The Worst-Case Scenario

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

As if stem cell research weren’t controversial enough! Recent reports from the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Canada had few positive results to share from a recent examination of the records of 900 cases of bone marrow transplants. Of the patients included in this study, 28 developed secondary tumors from skin, lung, or breast cancer within 10 years of receiving the transplant.

Statistically, these results represented a 2.3% risk in contracting cancer following stem cell transplants. While this is not a high-incident rate, closer analysis revealed patients receiving stem cells from female patients actually had a 4.6% risk of developing cancer, while those receiving stem cells from men received a 1.8% risk. This is the first study to demonstrate that stem cells from women carry a greater cancer risk than those from men do, said Donna Forrest of the British Columbia Cancer Agency.

 Attempting to understand the findings, Forrest said the women in the study had children — a fact that could account for the difference in the cells and how male recipients responded to the donors. She also noted that during the preliminary analysis no one screened for patients who smoked or maintained a healthy body weight.

Experts also caution that the drugs following transplants can be a greater risk for secondary tumors. “The findings from this study are not surprising,” explains Ed Yong of the London-based organization Cancer Research U.K. The cancer patients, who undergo stem cell transplant are given very intensive treatments and immunosuppressive drugs, which make them more vulnerable to developing other cancers later on in life.”

While the present research indicates stem cell research poses an additional risk, keep in mind that this therapy is only administered to patients with limited options. More studies are needed in order to determine the different types of cells’ effects on recipients and the effects of various immunosuppressive drugs following transplant surgery.

Despite the discouraging results, the medical and scientific communities still have high hopes for stem cell research. Future trials may also involve stem cell transplants in a wide variety of areas from spinal cord injury to heart failure. In the U.S., there are approximately 98 companies currently engaged in some aspect of stem cell research.

The popularity and intrigue that surrounds stem cell research is spreading throughout the globe. International news reports indicate Australia’s parliament, in a vote of 82 to 62, approved cloning human embryos for stem cell research, despite the opposition of its prime minister and other party leaders. The divisive debate drew many moral issues on the subject. Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile, leader of the Nationals Party, summed up his views by saying “We must not attempt to achieve good ends through what I believe are immoral means.”

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Brendan Nelson took an opposing stance in favor of stem cell research, stating “We owe it to the next generation no less to show the same wisdom and indeed the same courage.” Many admitted to wrestling with their consciences over the legislation.

Initially, Australia’s parliament passed a law on stem cell research in 2002, allowing scientists to extract stem cells from spare embryos for in-vitro fertilization, but prohibited cloning. However, the new legislation allows Australia’s scientists to conduct therapeutic cloning, which is the splicing of skin cells with eggs to produce stem cells or master cells, which are capable of forming all the tissues of the human body.

Scientists hope stem cell research will lead to treatments for conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and arthritis.