At the conclusion of another year, perhaps we should take a moment to take note of progress in adult stem cell research. Two compelling stories that caught my eye in just the past month took most of 2009 to make headlines as success stories.
This month in Australia, 20-year-old Ben Leahy, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (a disease of the nervous system) walked away from his wheelchair after a treatment earlier this year involving his own adult stem cells. Family Research Council describes the treatment and provides a list of other successful, similar treatments for patients with Multiple Sclerosis. According to Leahy's doctor, Colin Andrews, "the risk of death [for the procedure that] was at around 8 percent several years ago" has improved to a risk of less than 1 percent. As doctors in Sydney continue to use the method, we can expect the research to improve.
Also, in Britain, a rock climber named Andrew Kent was in danger of losing his leg after multiple breaks and infection, until doctors used a mix of collagen and his own adult stem cells to "glue" the bones back together. This month, six months after the procedure, the support system was removed, and his doctor said, "after 18 months his bones will have healed completely." Kent should be able to climb again.
Where the mainstream media reported these stories, the articles often omitted a reference to the "stem cell treatment" as adult rather than embryonic.
However, if you know anyone personally who could eventually benefit from advancements in stem cell research, as I do, you realize quickly how important it is to emphasize the distinction. Research suggests that adult stem cells are producing more demonstrable results than embryonic stem cells have so far, despite the fact that, in the United States, a majority of the funding (including federal, since President Obama eliminated restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research earlier this year) and publicity goes into embryonic stem cells.
While celebrities such as Michael J. Fox (Parkinson's disease) and Christopher Reeve (quadriplegic) helped popularize stem cell research as an important cause, both of their fundraising foundations emphasize the importance and merits of embryonic, rather than adult, stem cell research. This promotes one-sided awareness. Embryonic stem cell research concerns many Christians because of its ramifications for the humane treatment of the cells of "unwanted" babies. There are arguments for both sides of the issue because so many unborn cells exist in our country today, and much speculation exists about the potential to use these "surplus" cells. Many people celebrated the fact that this month also brought the first human embryonic stem cell lines approved for research under the new laws. However, these so-called extra cells are fertilized embryos, and therefore an early stage of human life. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are commonly extracted from the patient's own bone marrow, as in cases of Leahy and Kent.
Christians often accept an unwarranted reputation for being science-phobic because we tend to sound the alarm and raise red flags where issues of conscience are concerned. That's all the more reason why we should celebrate stories that prove how successful science can be when scientists choose methods that respect life. Stem cell research is important, and stories of its success are cause for thanksgiving to hundreds of people in need of improved living standards.
If God has given us the capacity for invention and imbued us with his own creative spirit (as I believe he has), consider that scientific advancement, united with methods that respect life, can be an answer to prayer.
Alicia Cohn previously interned at Christianity Today magazine. She has written for Her.meneutics about Christmas, Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, Anne Graham Lotz, parental rights, journalists in North Korea, Juanita Bynum, the Breast Cancer Bible, and The Stoning of Soraya M.
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