Monday, September 14, 2009

(PART 1) Stem Cells: Amazing healing power within our bodies

Read side bar: What are stem cells?
Read Part 2: From science fiction to reality
Read Part 3: Lab nerd tweaks tiny particles to renew life
Read Part 4: Regenerative medicine--hope or just hype
Read Human Face column: Stem cells from me, for me

(First of a series)

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Special Report/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
MANILA, Philippines—Who’s afraid of stem cell therapy?

Not me. I went through it—with the use of my very own adult stem cells. It was part of the therapeutic package—radical, immediate and customized—meant to battle a life-threatening health condition that I faced in late 2007. I was next door, so to speak, to the pre-departure area.
I underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy—the so-called “slice, poison and burn” procedures—plus stem cell therapy, which was the most customized and personalized and the least invasive.
My doctors and I believe stem cells had helped significantly not just to reduce the impact of the three radical procedures, but, more importantly, they played their own independent role in targeting the enemy without collateral damage. They helped restore my health and made me hit the ground running again, go out to sea, climb hills, travel far. From “on the verge” to “very clean.”
God is the ultimate healer, but doctors say that within each one of us are amazing microscopic molecular components called stem cells that could help reverse, regenerate and restore what had been diseased, damaged or destroyed. They were in our body when we were born.

Stem cell therapy and research have been in place in the Philippines for many years. Abroad, particularly in the United States , bioethical questions have been raised regarding the use of one of its sources—human embryos. Not in the Philippines , where human embryos and aborted fetuses are not being used by hospitals that are into stem cells.

An important reason is that there are other safe, acceptable and effective sources. One is a patient’s own body cells and tissues (blood and skin, among them). The other is blood and stem cells from umbilical cords—those amazing lifelines in the womb that come with newborns.

In step with the world
Some Filipino proponents of stem cell therapy and research say that the Philippines is in step with, if not a step ahead of its neighbors and countries that are more economically advanced.

Two premier private hospitals—The Medical City (TMC) and St. Luke’s Medical Center (SLMC)—and two government institutions—National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI) and Lung Center of the Philippines (LCP)—are now pushing stem cell technology into the mainstream.

Although the Philippines is faced with enormous health and nutrition woes because of poverty, advocates of the procedure say this does not mean that advances in science and technology have to be put on hold until all the primary health care concerns have been addressed.

Dr. Alfredo Bengzon, a former health secretary and TMC president, says: “This is our contribution to our country. We considered this when we decided to invest in this technology. This is also about patriotism. We will have to stand up to the rest of the world.”

Obama and embryos
Other Asian countries openly doing both stem therapy and research are China , Japan , South Korea and India . Singapore and Taiwan are into research while therapy is still in the experimental stage.

Supporters of this medical endeavor agree that the Philippines cannot be left behind because this country has the technology, the expertise, the manpower and the culture of care-giving. Tertiary hospitals here have girded up for the burgeoning of medical tourism.

US President Barack Obama’s lifting of the ban on embryonic stem cell research has rekindled fears that this could open a Pandora’s box and the cloning of humans. There has been renewed interest in US media on stem cells and how they could help battle diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s and other conditions.

But an expert says that some stories created more confusion rather than better understanding of the safety and bioethical issues.

The bioethical problem has to do with the use of stem cells from human embryos (embryonic stem cells) and deliberately aborted fetuses as well as the use of genetically modified stem cells (induced pluripotent stems cells or iPS cells). There are bioethical and biosafety issues regarding iPS cells because of immune rejection and risk of developing cancer.

Cells could now be reprogrammed to become cells in an embryo-like state without ever using embryos (fertilized eggs that are considered to be life in the making). This was first done in Japan and, through a different process, in the United States . These stem cells could then produce daughter cells that can potentially become any specialized cell to repair/replace diseased or damaged body parts (heart, bone, muscle, brain). With iPS, the moral debate over embryonic stem cells could be rendered moot.

But, and there is a big but, these so-called iPS cells have not been sufficiently tried and tested and could pose dangers.

On the other hand, the use of the umbilical cord (blood and stem cells) of newborn babies and the patient’s own (adult stem cells) do not pose a bioethical dilemma as no human embryos are being tampered with. Theologians and bioethicists are clear on this. Moreover, adult and umbilical stem cells have established records of safety and efficacy.

Stem cells for health
At TMC, cancer patients could avail themselves of dendritic stem cell therapy as an immune-system-boosting procedure. TMC also offers stem cell therapy for heart ailments and spine injury. For about five years now, more than 100 patients have received stem cell therapy at the hospital.

At SLMC, stem cells are being used to repair injured eyes—for free for volunteer patients. Its nearly 100 percent success in this procedure could make it become mainstream and available to many—but at a cost.

Stem cell research involving monkeys is also one of SLMC’s promising ongoing scientific projects that could offer breakthroughs.

Stem cell banking (from umbilical cords) is offered in both TMC and SLMC. There are biotech companies that now offer the technology, but a doctor of molecular biology warns those who use the name stem cells in vain and who are out for profit.

NKTI and LCP have acquired high-tech machines that are a dream-come-true for Filipino molecular biologists. Lung cancer and TB patients, being among the main concerns of LCP, could benefit from procedures using stem cells.

Major proponents of stem cell therapy in the Philippines look forward to partnership and sharing of facilities that would reduce cost and benefit patients.

How far have Philippine efforts gone in the brave new world of stem cells? (To be continued)