Doctor Fears Lack of Education Regarding Stem Cells Will Hamper Research and Could Kill Patients

July 30, 2004 -- Posted at: 6:45p.m. C.D.T.

MEMPHIS, TN - If you hadn't heard much about stem cell research before this year's presidential campaign started heating up, you've likely heard about it now. Most of the focus from both campaigns has been on embryonic stem cells. For that research, cells are removed from human embryos, then those embryos are destroyed.

A stem cell differs from other cells in that it has the ability to repeatedly reproduce itself and doesn't die, like a skin cell does. What most of us don't know is that there are different kinds of stem cells, and the ones used most often are adult stem cells. Those were the first kind of stem cells to be discovered more than 50 years ago.

"Adult stem cells generally can make only one type of tissue or tissues from a family that are related, and so they are not like the embryonic cells which can make the entire range of tissues for the entire body," explained Donna Przepiorka, M.D., Ph.D.

Doctor Przepiorka has been working with adult stem cells in research for more than 20 years. For the last 2 years, she's been Professor of Medicine and Chief of Malignant Hematology and Transplantation at the University of Tennessee Cancer Institute in Memphis. She explained that healthy bone marrow stem cells are used most often to help patients. It is stored in liquid nitrogen, thawed and then injected back into their bodies after chemotherapy.

Very recently, researchers were able to detect stem cells in the blood, muscle and other organs. That means a much less painful way to harvest it from patients and donors.

Doctor Przepiorka added, "It's just a fancy transfusion to get the bone marrow counts back up. You just seed the bone marrow with these stem cells, and they just grow just like putting seeds in your garden and letting them fill in with the flowers."

Recently doctors discovered that stem cells can make insulin unnecessary for diabetic patients, and, when injected, it can grow new liver, heart and brain tissue. Doctors aren't sure how stem cells regenerate, or how they know where to go in the body to start growing. If they can figure it out, it could eliminate organ transplants.

"I think they have tremendous potential to benefit mankind," said Przepiorka.

A computerized registry called the National Marrow Donor Program keeps track of 5 million stem cell donors. It's federally funded, just like the registry for organ transplants. The stem cell database is up for refunding, but confusion about embryonic stem cell research is slowing that process. It's up to federal legislators to renew support for it, and Doctor Przepiorka believes it's up to Americans to encourage them to do so.

"That registry is going to end up closing down, and the people who need transplants won't get them simply because of an issue that has absolutely nothing to do with the adult stem cells," she explained.