Page 276 - Week 01 - Thursday, 16 February 2006

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blood is a rich source of the baby’s own bone marrow stem cells, the building blocks of everything in the blood. Cord blood stem cells are similar to the ones found in bone marrow and they have the ability to develop into different types of mature blood cells. But, unlike bone marrow, a cord blood stem cell can be transplanted even if it is not a perfect match with the recipient’s DNA.

Cord blood stem cells are being used at the moment to effectively treat a wide range of illnesses, including cancer, leukaemia, sickle cell disease and severe combined immunodeficiency. Cord blood stem cells have an advantage over embryonic stem cells of being able to be used without exact genetic matching taking place. Transplantation of cord blood stem cells was successfully performed for the first time in 1988 to treat a rare and fatal blood disease. To date, both the donor and recipient are living healthy, disease-free lives. Since then, the advantages of using cord blood for transplantation have become clear. Worldwide, 1,500 transplants using cord blood stem cells have been recorded. There are now private cord blood banks operating all over the world. Whilst Australia does have private cord blood service banks, sadly the people of Canberra are not able to contribute to these.

Adult stem cells, including cord blood stem cells, have proven to be more plenipotent or pliable and plastic than previously thought. Ethical stem cell research has a capacity to make experimentation on embryonic stem cells redundant. “It can be used for a variety of disorders: leukaemia, lymphomas and haematolgic malignancies and also genetic disorders,” according to Dr Lucy Nam, medical director of the cord blood donation program at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Following on from these comments, scientists from Duke University in North Carolina in the USA have scientifically validated that stem cells in cord blood can infiltrate damaged heart tissue and transform themselves into the kind of heart cells needed to halt further damage.

On the national front, adult stem cells have been implanted in two Australian men with badly blocked arteries. The trial was aimed at assessing safety of procedure and so far the men have had no side effects from the procedure. Although it is too soon to identify health benefits, researchers are confident of achieving a positive result from the trial. Embryonic stem cells, however, have a natural propensity to form teratomas, and their exhibition of chromosomal abnormalities and the abnormalities that have been displayed in cloned mammals all present questions regarding the validity of using embryonic cells.

Adult stem cells and cord blood stem cells, on the other hand, do not present these problems, and when they are used to treat the person from whom they are drawn they have several advantages. There is a very small risk of rejection and virtually no risk of transferring genetic and viral diseases. The advantages of using adult and cord blood stem cells have been repeatedly and successfully demonstrated over the years. There are numerous examples and, although I do not have time to refer to them all, I will refer to a couple. Adult stem cells have healed broken bones and torn cartilage in a clinical trial. They were responsible for the first completely successful trial of human gene therapy, helping children with severe combined immunodeficiency disease to leave their sterile environment for the first time. Adult stem cells from a young paraplegic woman’s own immune system injected into the site of her spinal cord injury cured her incontinence and enabled her to move her toes and legs for the first time.

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