True stem-cell success - Catholic Courier

True stem-cell success

May 20, 2003, represents a birthday of sorts for Carol Franz. That’s when she received a transplant of adult stem cells which greatly strengthened her in her fight against cancer.

“I always remember it because it was like I was born again, with a new bloodstream. I got three years of life,” said Franz, 64, a parishioner in the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in Tioga County.

Franz now dedicates herself to promoting awareness of the benefits of adult stem-cell therapies. She has given many public talks on the topic, as has Jann Armantrout, life-issues coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester.

“Throughout all regions of the diocese, there was almost always someone in the audience who had either benefitted from adult stem-cell treatment, or had a parent or grandparent who had,” Armantrout said.

Geraldine Oftedahl’s brother, Bill Ptacek, who lives in Seattle, Wash., was successfully treated for cancer a few years ago using his own adult stem cells. Now Oftedahl, a parishioner of Irondequoit’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church, trumpets such news as president of the newly formed Adult Stem Cell Initiative Inc., a Rochester-area advocacy group.

Although adult stem cells have been used successfully all over the world to treat people suffering from dozens of different afflictions — including cancer, paralysis, blood disease and heart disease — Franz, Armantrout and Oftedahl contend that this news is not reaching the public.

“It’s unbelievable. You don’t hear about it here (in the United States). I didn’t realize, until I got ill, that all these (adult stem-cell treatments) are available,” Franz said.

“You would think there are no treatments using adult stem cells,” Armantrout agreed.

Rather, they said, public attention has focused on the more controversial topic of embryonic stem-cell treatment. Since such cells are harvested from aborted fetuses and cloned embryos, these practices stand in opposition to Catholic teaching that human life begins at conception and must be protected from that point on.

Because embryonic stem cells are “pluripotent,” meaning that they are capable of differentiating into many cell types, scientists claim their use may lead to better treatment of — and possibly even cures for — Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and other ailments. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are generally limited — at least with current technology — to developing into cell types related to their tissue of origin.

Yet Oftedahl noted that “there has not been one successful treatment” to date using embryonic stem cells. Neither has there been any success at developing such stem cells except through killing a fetus or cloning, though scientists have recently announced breakthroughs and near-breakthroughs in these areas.

“This experimental and unproven technology violates the dignity that each human being must be given because of his or her humanness,” Armantrout stated. She added that the focus on embryonic stem-cell research is potentially hurting public subsidization for further development of treatments using adult stem cells — treatments that have been proven to work and which the church endorses.

Proven success

Franz, for one, is thankful to have accessed adult stem-cell treatment. In 2002 it was discovered that she had multiple myeloma — a cancer formed by malignant white blood cells, or plasma cells — which was causing slow deterioration of bones in her head.

“My head hurt so bad. I just used to put ice packs on it and cry,” Franz said.

She opted for stem-cell treatment after doctors said that was her best shot at survival. Her healthy core stem cells were removed from her bloodstream and multiplied. Then they were frozen and stored until after high doses of chemotherapy destroyed Franz’ immune system. The thawed cells were then returned to her bloodstream through a catheter during a transplant at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse. From there, her immune system has slowly been regrowing.

Franz noted that she recently had a relapse — common for her kind of cancer, which is treatable but incurable — and plans to have another transplant this fall using some of her stored stem cells.

According to the Web site, adult stem cells have been used successfully in 72 documented clinical cases. Through her research, Franz learned of adult stem-cell success in such countries as England and Italy.

“When I became ill, I didn’t have a clue. And this has been going on since the 1980s,” she said.

Science, politics, morals

On the other hand, the number of successful embryonic stem-cell treatments remains at zero. Nonetheless, because of the promised potential and moral implications of such procedures, an intense political and ethical battle rages on.

In his campaign for governor of New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, is pledging $1 billion in public monies for embryonic stem-cell research. His Republican opponent, John Faso, supports this type of research as well, but disagrees that the funding should be so vast. On the federal level, H.R. 810 (the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act) — which would have provided additional funding for embryonic stem-cell research — fell victim July 19 to the first veto of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Actor Michael J. Fox — who has Parkinson’s disease — had written to President Bush, urging him to sign H.R. 810. Fox argued that embryonic stem-cell research “transforms embryos already marked for destruction into potentially life-saving research. I can think of no better affirmation of the culture of life.”

Fox’s letter to Bush alluded to an oft-used statistic that more than 400,000 surplus embryos created for in-vitro fertilization procedures lie frozen at U.S. clinics and eventually will be discarded. The stem cells within these embryos could be extracted and put to good use.

But Armantrout contended that the repetition of this statistic ignores a key point: A recent study by the RAND Corporation showed that in-vitro fertilization patients have designated only 2.8 percent of such embryos for research, Armantrout said, adding that most such embryos are being saved for future attempts at pregnancy.

Another potential means of harvesting embryonic stem cells is to clone fetuses. Yet according to an Aug. 7, 2006, article in Time magazine, “Scientists admit that moving forward would require a much larger supply of fresh, healthy embryos than fertility clinics could ever provide. And once you start asking people about creating embryos for the purpose of experimenting on them, the (public) support starts to slow down.”

Support often hinges on whether an embryo — especially one that’s a few days old — constitutes a human life. Yet there’s no argument in Oftedahl’s mind.

“Basically, a sperm and an egg coming together is a new life. Why not accept that and deal with that?” she asked.

“There are people who say ‘we don’t believe science should have any constraint,'” Armantrout added. “We need to be very clear about what we’re deciding. We are favoring scientific research unbridled by moral constraint on human subjects.”

Franz said any public funding for embryonic stem-cell research forces the issue onto people, whether they support it or not.

“That’s starting you down a slippery slope, as far as I’m concerned,” she said, remarking that such legislation would force “all taxpayers to pay for the destruction of human life.”

Educating the public

To keep such arguments in the public eye, the Adult Stem Cell Initiative formed last year. Armantrout, who serves as ASCI’s vice president, said she’s “very pleased there’s a secular organization formed in the community” to advance this cause.

ASCI is hosting an Oct. 15 event with David Prentice, an internationally known expert on stem-cell research, therapy and cloning (see page A3.) Oftedahl noted that ASCI also wishes to engage in conversation with such community members as Jack A. Erdle and his wife Norma, who earlier this year donated $1 million for stem-cell research at the University of Rochester Medical Center but did not publicly specify whether the funds were to be used for research using adult or embryonic stem cells.

Armantrout engaged in a public debate in November 2004 with Mark Noble, a stem-cell researcher at the University of Rochester who strongly favors embryonic research and treatment. Armantrout also addressed a Rochester Rotary Club meeting Sept. 18, noting that numerous prominent business leaders were in attendance.

“It wasn’t just in a church basement,” she remarked.

In addition, Armantrout was a leader of the 2005 diocesan public-policy campaign in which stem-cell research was a chief policy issue.

Meanwhile, Franz raises awareness at speaking engagements scheduled far and wide. She has appeared in Las Vegas and Austin, Texas, and at a Respect Life gathering Sept. 19-20 in the Diocese of Ogdensburg. She also has written letters to the editor to numerous publications — including the Catholic Courier — supporting adult stem-cell research while decrying the use of embryonic cells.

“I really think the Lord is guiding me along this path,” Franz said. “I have to believe the Holy Spirit keeps bringing it back to me, to get this word out — to let people know you don’t have to destroy life to save life.”

Stem-cell overview

Stem cells, formed shortly after fertilization, are master cells that can divide and renew themselves in large numbers and for long periods.

* Adult stem cells are found in all human beings beginning at birth. First discovered in the 1960s, adult stem cells are located in such major tissues as a person’s bone marrow, blood, brain, skin, fat, umbilical cord and placenta.

ARGUMENT FOR: Adult stem cells have been successfully used to treat patients with cancer, paralysis, diseases affecting the liver, heart and brain, and many other maladies. Most patients are given adult stem cells from their own body, decreasing the chances of their immune systems rejecting the cells. The Catholic Church supports the use of adult stem cells based on the humane way of obtaining them.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: Not as flexible as embryonic stem cells due to the limited number of cell types they can generate.

* Embryonic stem cells are found in embryos that have developed for six or fewer days. The embryos are created through in-vitro fertilization using donor eggs and sperm and are killed when their stem cells are removed. Embryonic stem cells also can be derived from a cloning process known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer” using the same technique that created Dolly, the cloned sheep.

ARGUMENT FOR: Since embryonic stem cells can potentially transform into virtually any kind of human tissue, many advocates believe they can achieve greater heights than adult stem cells — possibly even curing major diseases.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: The church opposes this branch of research and treatment since it causes the deaths of embryos. Additionally, the cloning process requires large quantities of fresh human eggs, which cannot be obtained easily.

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