Magazine article Newsweek

Stem Cells Are Where It's at; despite Setbacks and Controversy, Promising Research Is Underway

Magazine article Newsweek

Stem Cells Are Where It's at; despite Setbacks and Controversy, Promising Research Is Underway

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Carmichael

Seventeen years ago, Richard Burt, an immunologist at Northwestern University, had a crazy idea. What if he could press the "restart" button on his patients, destroying their faulty immune systems and building them new ones? The regeneration process would be hard, but he'd heard about something called stem-cell research that might help. It took eight years to get FDA approval. "When we did that first patient," he says, "you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife."

Today Burt has treated 170 patients with stem cells, and increasingly, others are following his lead. There are now more than 1,000 stem-cell therapies in early human trials around the world. The vast majority use cells from patients' own bone marrow, but doctors are also using cells from healthy adults, and last month saw the first patient treated with embryonic cells, which have triggered much debate in the United States. After years of being thought of as science fiction--the domain of animal labs and the distant future--stem-cell therapies are becoming a scientific fact.

Burt alone has now treated patients with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and a host of other immune disorders. He's just written up the results of a stem-cell trial for type 1 diabetes. Three years after treatment, some patients now have normal blood sugar and don't take insulin. Burt also plans trials for two diseases in which "nothing else really seems to work": Lou Gehrig's disease and a rare type of autism involving the immune system. He will treat his first autism patient in January. …

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