News / Science & Technology

Adult Stem Cell Research Avoids Ethical Concerns

Scientists find they can be more useful than their embryonic counterparts

Notre Dame Professor David Hyde examines adult stem cells under the microscope.
Notre Dame Professor David Hyde examines adult stem cells under the microscope.
Erika Celeste

Imagine a world in which Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, arthritis, blindness, and blood disorders are a thing of the past.

Unique cells known as stem cells could hold the key. Like magic seeds, they respond to built-in genetic instructions to develop into bone cells, muscle cells, brain cells or any other type of cell as the growing body takes form. Scientists believe these cells can also be used to treat many different diseases.

But research in this field has raised ethical questions, especially at some religious institutions. Researchers at a renowned Catholic university are working to find alternative ways to exploit the healing power of these extraordinary cells.

In the 1960s, two Canadian scientists discovered that stem cells from developing human embryos can regenerate tissue.

Scientists are using adult stem cells in the eyes of the zebrafish to regenerate damaged cells, restoring vision.
Scientists are using adult stem cells in the eyes of the zebrafish to regenerate damaged cells, restoring vision.

The finding raised the possibility of new treatments for diseases, like macular degeneration and Alzheimer's, in which body tissues are destroyed and the only cure is to replace those tissues.  

Ethical conflict

However, these embryonic stem cells can only be harvested from living human embryos that have been either naturally or purposely aborted.

That creates an ethical conflict for people of many religious faiths, including Catholics, who consider embryos to be living beings, and their destruction, murder. It meant that researchers at universities with religious affiliations, such as Notre Dame in Indiana, could not explore this ground-breaking field.

So they looked for other ways to obtain and use stem cells that would not be morally problematic. They turned to adult stem cells, which come from mature cells.

Finding an alternative

Many researchers argued that adult stem cells were not as adaptable as those from embryos, but University of Notre Dame researcher David Hyde says they seem to be adapting quite well.

In a secure research facility, Hyde shows off a collection of more than 100,000 zebrafish. The two-and-a-half centimeter long blue striped creatures swim in their tanks, oblivious to the important role they're playing in retina research.  

"All the fish are anesthetized before they're treated and most of the treatments involved use extremely bright light, which kills off their rod and cone photoreceptor cells in the retina," says Hyde.  

Researchers know that the fish are blind because they do not swim away from simulated predators like their sighted counterparts. However, adult stem cells in the eyes of the zebrafish regenerate the damaged cells, restoring vision.

Hyde and his colleagues examine the stem cells under microscopes to try to determine how the regeneration process works.

Hyde says zebrafish have a similar eye structure to humans, but the stem cells in our eyes do not automatically regenerate.

Promising signs

"So we're ready to start to think about are these processes that we've identified in zebra fish, are they working properly in humans? Or is there something that is blocking their ability to function in humans, which would then correlate to the inability in the human retina to regenerate."

Ideally, Hyde and his colleagues hope to identify the mechanism that zebrafish use to regenerate their vision and apply the knowledge to humans.

Other stem cell researchers at Notre Dame are working with fruit flies to gain a better understanding of the biochemical processes in blood production, which is critical to curing blood diseases like leukemia or hemophilia. And mice are being used to research adult stem cells in bone, cartilage, and fat to gain answers in treating arthritis and orthopedic diseases.  

According to Hyde, adult stem cells have proved even more useful than their embryonic counterparts in many ways.

"What we haven't been able to do is to take an embryonic stem cell, place it into a neural tissue such as the retina and have it become specific types of cells that regenerate only the damaged or missing cells," says Hyde. "That process of becoming a specific type of cell is going to be extremely difficult whereas these adult stem cells that already reside in that tissue seem to have already resolved that problem for us."  

Cutting edge of adult stem cell research

While Notre Dame officials acknowledge that their university cannot compete with institutions like Harvard and Stanford in the field of embryonic stem cell research, it is on the cutting edge of adult stem cell research.

It's one of a growing number of American universities and institutions such as Wake-Forest in North Carolina, the University of Maryland, and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Internationally, groups in Great Britain, Mexico, Singapore, Sweden and South Korea are also involved in adult stem cell research.  

Notre Dame recently started an interdisciplinary adult stem cell initiative so faculty from its biology, law and engineering departments can work together in the area. Historian and philosopher Philip Sloan says the university is also looking into offering graduate training on adult stem cell issues to humanities, law, and science students.  

"It's important to be aware of that not simply in spite of our religious affiliation, but because of a conception we have within the Catholic tradition of a need to interface science, theology, faith, and reason and these questions, I think those are going to be important signature that we can bring to this these discussions."  

Next year, Notre Dame plans to host a workshop, bringing scientists and ethicists from around the country together to discuss the future of adult stem cell research.

You May Like

Video Experts Warn World Losing Ebola Fight

Doctors Without Borders says world is losing battle against Ebola, unless wealthy nations dispatch specialized biological disaster response teams More

Video Experts: Rise of Islamic State Significant Development in Jihadism

Many analysts contend the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years More

US-Based Hong Kongers Pledge Support for Pro-Democracy Activists

Democracy advocates call on Chinese living abroad to join them in opposing new election rules for their home territory More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Larger Than Life Chinese Lanterns Make Southern California Appearancei
X
Elizabeth Lee
September 02, 2014 8:57 PM
Chinese lanterns with a long history are lighting up in 21st century style at the Los Angeles County Fair in southern California. Visitors can see traditional lanterns that hang, but also lanterns in the shape of animals, iconic landmarks and many other objects, all created by artisans from a place in China known for its lanterns. Elizabeth Lee has the details from the fair in the city of Pomona.
Video

Video Larger Than Life Chinese Lanterns Make Southern California Appearance

Chinese lanterns with a long history are lighting up in 21st century style at the Los Angeles County Fair in southern California. Visitors can see traditional lanterns that hang, but also lanterns in the shape of animals, iconic landmarks and many other objects, all created by artisans from a place in China known for its lanterns. Elizabeth Lee has the details from the fair in the city of Pomona.
Video

Video Experts See Rise of ISIS as Significant Development

The Islamic State’s rise seems sudden. It caught the U.S. by surprise this summer when it captured large portions of northern Iraq and spread its wings in neighboring Syria. But many analysts contend that the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years. VOA's Jela de Franceschi takes a closer look at the rise of ISIS and its implications for the Middle East and beyond.
Video

Video Israel Concerned Over Syrian Rebels in Golan

Israeli officials are following with concern the recent fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces near the contested Golan Heights. Forty-four U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji have been seized by Syrian Islamist rebels and the clashes occasionally have spilled into Israel. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.

AppleAndroid