Stem cell research starting to take off in state research outlets

November 23, 2009
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LANSING — When an egg is fertilized, it forms a mass of cells that becomes a living being. But what if that mass of cells could become something else?

Cells extracted from an embryo, called embryonic stem cells, can be used to form any of the 200 types that exist in the human body because they originate from undifferentiated cells of a fertilized egg, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

Now researchers in the state are expanding their work in the aftermath of a November 2008 ballot proposal that allows them to experiment with embryonic stem cells.

“We hope that we can use them to find cures for genetic diseases like Huntington’s,” U-M researcher Sean Morrison said.

Embryonic stem cells differ significantly from their adult counterparts, which have been used in medical research and treatment since the 1960s. Adult cells are already differentiated, meaning they can form only one or two types of cell.

Eva Feldman, director of the U-M Neurology Research and Discovery program, is using adult stem cells in a clinical trial with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patients. The disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, causes nerves to degenerate, leading to loss of control over voluntary movements such as speaking and breathing. Patients typically die within three to five years of diagnosis.

“This study is a major stride forward in a long road to a new and improved treatment for ALS,” Feldman said.

Critics say that research with embryonic cells is unnecessary because possible cures for a multitude of diseases have been found using adult stem cells, as in Feldman’s research.

“We hear a lot about the potential of embryonic stem cell research, but we’ve already found several cures with adult ones,” Right to Life of Michigan director of public information Pamela Sherstad said. “And adult stem cell research isn’t destroying a human being.

“The biggest problem is that we haven’t even had any breakthroughs with embryonic cells since Proposal 2 was passed.”

Morrison attributes the lack of research advances to federal rules.

“The past year has been spent on regulation,” Morrison said. “We’re just now starting to begin the actual research. My lab, for example, is looking at a cell therapy that would fix Hirschsprung’s disease, which is a genetic condition that causes an enlarged colon.”

Michigan Citizens for Stem Cell Research and Cures, a Southfield-based advocacy group, hopes to see such research progress to clinical trials.

“The horrible thing about miseducation is that people believe it,” MCSCR managing director Sophia Eichner said. “We’ve found that when people are given the facts, they make the right decision. They choose to use the discarded embryos for research.”

According to Eichner, the embryos used in research are left over from fertility clinics and would be discarded if not used.

But Sherstad said, “Every person begins as a human embryo. We must respect all human beings.”

The medical school at the University of Michigan is the only one doing embryonic stem cell research in the state.

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