PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Former state Treasurer David Volk of Sioux Falls, a cancer survivor, says a proposed ballot issue to ease restrictions on stem cell research will strike a chord with South Dakotans because nearly everyone has had a serious disease or knows someone who has.Stem cell research will provide a viable avenue to finding the cause and cure for disease processes. The increased attention given to this area of medicine is certainly understandable and of high significance. But what results has embryonic stem cell research produced to date? What is its true value?
Volk heads a group called South Dakotans for Lifesaving Cures. He says the state's ban on research involving embryonic stem cells should be thrown out so more work can be done to help find cures and treatment for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's and other diseases.
The group will have until April 6 to get the 16,776 valid signatures required to put the measure to a statewide public vote in November 2010.
An abortion opponent, state Rep. Roger Hunt of Brandon, predicts "considerable opposition" and says the Legislature might even try to deal with the issue before Volk's measure makes the ballot.
Literally billions of dollars have been spent in the private sector on embryonic stem cell research. In fact, in 2005 the State of California alone took out 3 billion dollars in bond loans to fund embryonic stem cell research in that state. While adult stem cells have already produced therapies, embryonic stem cells have not. In addition, the most recent report from Israel published in PLoS Medicine in late February shows embryonic stem cells injected into patients can cause disabling if not deadly tumors.
It is important to understand adult stem cell research has scored major wins evident just in the past few months. Adult stem cell research involves human stem cells that are not derived from human embryos and occur in small quantities in organs throughout the body for natural growth and repair, and research has shown how to develop them into many cell types. In the 1950s, researchers discovered that bone marrow contains at least two kinds of stem cells. As a result, adult stem cells have been used successfully for years in bone marrow transplants. The fact remains most of the stem cell triumphs that the public hears about today involves adult stem cells.
One of the key arguments for embryonic stem cell research is that this cell has the flexibility to virtually turn into almost any type of cell in the human body. But a recent development in 2007 discovered the same capacity of adult stem cells to be created into what is called induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS). It involves reprogramming the DNA from adult skin, and they can turn into any cell in the body, bypassing the need for embryos. As of February, scientists have reported iPS cells can now be transformed into mature nerve cells. The cells also have a significantly lower cost, ease of production, and have an important genetic identity with the patient. They also bring unique application to medical and pharmaceutical research, because cells cultivated from patients with certain diseases readily become laboratory models for developing and testing therapy.
In addition, according to a January 9, 2007 Daily Telegraph (London) article reporting on a statement by Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University, the fluid surrounding the fetus has been found to contain stem cells, that, when utilized correctly, "can be differentiated towards cell types such as fat, bone, muscle, blood vessel, nerve and liver cells", according to the article. The extraction of this fluid is not thought to harm the fetus in any way. "Our hope is that these cells will provide a valuable resource for tissue repair and for engineered organs as well," said Dr Atala.
It is often claimed by pro-life supporters that the use of adult stem cells from sources such as umbilical cord blood has consistently produced more promising results than the use of embryonic stem cells. Furthermore, adult stem cell research may be able to make greater advances if less money and resources were channeled into embryonic stem cell research.
But as we talk about this issue across the state (should the petition become circulated and end up on the ballot) we will certainly be faced with the question my wife asked, “Why is my life more important than someone else’s?” The ending of a human life to potentially serve the medical needs of another should not be a tough choice for the people of this state. At least it isn’t for my wife, a stage 4 breast cancer survivor.