Saving Sight, Testing Faith

Article excerpt

Byline: Sharon Begley

Stem cells from embryos may finally cure patients--reviving a bitter debate.

Stem cells, it seems, have become almost as ubiquitous in medicine as stethoscopes. Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon received injections of stem cells from his own fat and bone marrow to treat an injured shoulder and elbow, his doctor recently revealed. Meanwhile, a Texas hospital is testing whether stem cells from a patient's bone marrow will improve the effectiveness of cardiac bypass surgery. It's enough to suggest that the bitter religious, ethical, and political battles over stem cells that began in 1998 were pointless. If cells harvested from patients themselves can treat disease, perhaps there's no need to use ones obtained from human embryos--with all the questions that raises.

To Robert Lanza, this argument is just another in a long line of attacks that have come at him nonstop for 10 years. As chief medical officer of Advanced Cell Technology, a leading stem-cell company, he has no doubt that adult stem cells will fall woefully short of the promise of embryonic ones. "Adult stem cells can't do all the same tricks," he argues. "There are over 3,000 Americans who die every day from diseases that could be treated with embryonic stem-cell therapies." His single-minded determination has made him a punching bag for U.S. senators, the Catholic Church, and his fellow stem-cell scientists, to name but a few who have attacked his research. "The Catholic Church might just as well have put a price on my head," says Lanza, himself a born and confirmed Catholic. Advanced Cell was bombarded with scathing emails accusing its scientists of having perverted sex in the labs and ripping limbs off babies, with some so threatening that a Massachusetts judge issued a subpoena to trace the senders.

But vindication may be near. Lanza's dream of turning human embryonic stem cells into therapies for the sick and the suffering is taking a huge step closer to reality. As early as next month, the first patient will undergo a revolutionary procedure aimed at restoring sight. A bioethics board at UCLA recently approved a clinical trial of cells Lanza has produced from human embryonic stem cells--obtained from donated in vitro fertilization embryos--to treat blindness. If all goes well, it will be the first study to show whether human embryonic stem cells can cure disease.

It's already bringing ethical questions front and center. After Lanza approached ophthalmic surgeon Steven Schwartz of UCLA about leading the clinical trial, Schwartz consulted two patients he considers "religious authorities": elderly nuns who were losing their eyesight to macular degeneration, which affects about 17 million Americans and is the most common cause of blindness in people over 60. Schwartz told the nuns the trial would use cells from human embryos. "I asked, would that keep you from being in the trial? I got the same response from both: if God gave people the capacity to do this cutting-edge science, then we should."

To Lanza, the irony was almost painful. As soon as James Thompson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, announced in 1998 that he had taken days-old human embryos and derived stem cells--which give rise to every kind of cell and thus hold out the promise of curing diseases from Parkinson's to juvenile diabetes--the science has been both besieged and stymied by religious and moral objections. Taking stem cells from days-old embryos usually destroys the embryo; to Catholics and others who believe life begins at conception, that is murder. After President Bush banned the use of federal money for most embryonic-stem-cell research in 2001, it was left to private companies (or academic labs using private money) to carry the ball. …