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Stem cells: From controversy to optimism

While stem cells were once a charged topic, issues over their use have cooled. Since companies such as Osiris Therapeutics have found that there is a greater benefit in using stem cells derived from adults, the public is beginning to accept the possibilities the medical technology has to offer.

“Years ago when stem cells were breaking ground, the cells came from embryos,”  Dr. Spence Misner ’73 said. “However it has been discovered that embryos are not a good source for stem cells.”

Stem cells derived from placenta are nonimmunogenic, preventing the body from rejecting them. In addition, while also being plentiful, placentas are typically discarded after birth. Rather than discarding the material, patients can sign a consent form donating the placenta, which in turn can be used in stem cell treatments.

Likewise, stem cells derived from bone marrow are more effective than embryonic stem cells, and can be extracted from marrow donated by adults. Despite these new methods, misunderstanding of the technologies still lead some to believe the cells should not be used. Misner received hate mail accusing him of being a “baby killer,” and even Rice had initial confusion on the sources of the stem cells.

“People still relate stem cells to embryos, and embryos to babies,” Misner said. “Even the placenta used in creating stem cells can only come from C-sections, as the vagina is lined with bacteria.”

As more work is done with stem cell technologies, it is increasingly apparent that stem cells could be the future of medicine.

“We are just at the beginning of stem cell technologies, so the future is unknown in many ways,” Osiris Therapeutics Chief Operating Officer Lode Debrabandere said. “There are still things that have to be proven. There is still a lot of clinical research to be done to understand the quality of the technologies.

“More companies are becoming involved in the field, and that’s a good thing. It is not something that one company or economic institution can do. You need lots in lots of different countries. All of these products have to go through the same vigorous FDA testing,” Debrabandere said. “The bar is set very high, and it’s not easy. More players coming in and more research dollars being spent will result in a better understanding of the future of these technologies.”