Stem Cell Halfway Houses:
The Promise of AFS Research

Stem Cell Research — By on January 7, 2007 at 11:14 pm

In a remarkable medical breakthrough, scientists from Harvard and Wake Forest report that they have discovered a new source of stems cells that have the ability to create muscle, bone, fat, blood vessel, nerve, and liver cells in the laboratory. These newly discovered stem cells, which they have named amniotic fluid-derived stem (AFS) cells, may represent an intermediate stage–“halfway houses”–between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. The research, which has been ongoing for the past seven years, was reported in yesterday’s Nature Biotechnology.
One of the primary advantages of the AFS cells is their ready availability. The cells can be harvested from backup amniotic fluid specimens obtained for amniocentesis or from “afterbirth,” the placenta and other membranes that are expelled after delivery. Anthony Atala, M.D., senior researcher and director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, says that a bank with 100,000 specimens theoretically could supply 99 percent of the U.S. population with perfect genetic matches for transplantation.
A number of factors make these cells preferable to embryonic stem cells (ESC), which have never been used for therapies. Their value could even potentially surpass adult stem cells, which are used in about seventy treatments and therapies. According to the report:

  • The AFS cells can be grown in large quantities because they typically double every 36 hours.
  • They do not require guidance from “feeder” cells.
  • Unlike ESC, they do not produce tumors.
  • The specialized cells generated from the AFS cells included all three classes of cells found in the developing embryo.

Because of their high degree of flexibility and growth potential, the AFS cells resemble embryonic stem cells. “The full range of cells that AFS cells can give rise to remains to be determined,” said Atala. “So far, we’ve been successful with every cell type we’ve attempted to produce from these stem cells. The AFS cells can also produce mature cells that meet tests of function, which suggests their therapeutic value.”
As with all stem cell research, we must be careful not to overstate either the promise or potential for producing a broad range of therapeutic uses. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see empirical evidence for research that has, unlike ESCR, actual potential for developing cures.
Compare embryonic stem cells with amniotic fluid-derived stem cells:
ESC: Requires destruction of a human embryo to obtain cells.
AFS: Obtaining cells is ethically unproblematic.
ESC: If genetic matches for transplantation could be obtained at all, it would come from the creation and destruction of cloned human embryos.
AFS: Genetic matches for transplantation can be obtained from discarded placentas.
ESC: Therapeutic uses impeded because they are tumorigenic.
AFS: Do not produce tumors.
Even if we ignore the ethics of cloning and embryo destruction, this last reason is enough to prefer AFS to ESC. As James Sherley, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, notes, “[F]iguring out how to use human embryonic stem cells directly by transplantation into patients is tantamount to solving the cancer problem.”
This week the Democrats in Congress will again push for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. However, unless we first discover a cure for cancer and find a way to harvest the millions of human eggs that will be needed for cloning, such research will remain nothing more than unethical science fiction. The only people who should support such research are the biotech firms who, unable to entice private investors, must line their pockets with the blood money of taxpayers. The rest of us, however, should push for funding of research that is both ethical and likely to produce therapeutically useful results. Those of us who believe in the value of both science and morality should remain in the real “reality-based community” and let the House Democrats march off alone into their Brave New World.
Related:
Newsweek: New Stem-Cell Source Could Alter Debate
New Scientist: ‘Ethical’ stem cells that arrive with baby
New Scientist: Cancer warning over stem cell therapies



  • http://www.donaldscrankshaw.com Donald S. Crankshaw

    Typo alert! It looks like AFS and ESC are switched in the second point of the comparison.

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    That last NewScientist article about ESC’s and cancer also points in a positive direction: “telltale methylation patterns” may be a way to screen for cancer in non-ESC contexts.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    An interesting irony here regarding the ban on stem cell research. Without the ban developments like this would serve to limit or decrease such research because proposals that would not entail embryo destruction would have an advantage in the competition for funding.
    Because of the ban, though, states and private agencies have been set up with a dedicated mission to persue stem cell research. Because those dollars are dedicated to embryo research they will be spent because they are shielded from competition.

  • Don

    There’s no “ban” on stem cell research. There’s a decision, made by elected representatives/executive in D.C. not to use federal funds on stem cell research beyond some existing stem cell lines, because many Americans believe there are ethical problems with such research and don’t want their tax money spent on it.

  • George

    Secular leftists like to think there is a ban. Hey, if it makes them feel better through self-righteous suffering, more power to ‘em. Myths are important in the stem cell debate. As McKay (NIH, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Sr. Investigator) noted in the WaPo when discussing the “promise” of embryonic stem cell therapy, “To start with, people need a fairy tale. Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s simple to understand.”
    Ban is a nice simple word we can all bandy (sorry) about while we are waiting for the quadriplegics to rise from their wheelchairs. (Psssst… I hear it’s going to happen next Thursday now that Nancy P is simultaneously hugging babies and running the country.)

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    George and Don are right on the technical point but not the overall point. There is no ban on stem cell research but a ban on Federal funds for it (and the ban is a bit stronger than is sometimes depicted…labs that wish to do research on their own dime often have to segregate equipment, staff, and even whole sections of buildings because it can be hard to otherwise tell which money is going where).
    If there was a ban then states and private groups couldn’t be forming their own organizations to do the research. In contrast consider the ban on doing research using human beigns against their will and without informed consent. That is truelly banned since even a private company using its own money would be breaking the law if they did such a thing.
    The larger point is that I would assume those who support the current ban do so because they think there should be less rather than more embryonic stem cell research. Yet as a consequence of the ban there is probably going to be more research as I pointed out. This would hardly be the first time a policy had the caused something to happen that was the opposite of what its supporters intended.

  • ucfengr

    George and Don are right on the technical point but not the overall point. There is no ban on stem cell research but a ban on Federal funds for it
    Actually Boon, the ban is only on federal funding for embryonic stem cells beyond some existing cell lines. There is no ban on federal dollars for research on adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells on the existing lines, or even on stem cells found in amniotic fluid. Listening to Nancy Pelosi or Michael J. Fox, it would be easy to mistake the ban as being on all stem cell research, but the reality is it is a pretty limited ban on the branch of stem cell research that, so far has shown the least promise of results.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    ucfengr,
    Actually I think that this is less about some grand attempt to fool everyone than it is simple laziness. It’s easier to just type stem cells than embryonic stem cells. I think I made it clear several times, though, that the ban referred to embryonic stem cells and not stem cells derived from other sources.
    but the reality is it is a pretty limited ban on the branch of stem cell research that, so far has shown the least promise of results.
    If this is true then it just goes to demonstrate my point. (Although I think there’s reason to suspect that maybe a part of the ‘failure’ of embryonic research is due to the best simply not persuing it because they don’t want the hassel of trying to secure funding). As a result of the ban you have caused the creation of various research funds dedicated to embryonic stem cell research. Without the ban that research money would have been fought over by those with non-embryonic stem cell proposals and if those proposals indeed have more promise they would have won.
    Before you complain about Michael J Fox perhaps you should look at your own side. Specifically not a single embryo has been saved because of the ban. An honest description of the ban would be more like “let’s flush 99.989% of unused IVF embryos down the drain and let private business do research on the remaining 0.011% rather than flush 99.980% and use the remaining 0.020% for research”.

  • ucfengr

    Before you complain about Michael J Fox perhaps you should look at your own side.
    I’m not complaining about MJF, merely making an observation that if you got your information on stem cell research from him and his supporters you might reasonably conclude that there is a ban on all stem cell research, not just a relatively narrow ban on federal funding of one particular type.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    merely making an observation that if you got your information on stem cell research from him and his supporters you might reasonably conclude that there is a ban on all stem cell research, not just a relatively narrow ban on federal funding of one particular type.
    That would be an odd conclusion to make since MJF and others often appear speaking in favor of various ballots to provide funds to ESC research. If there was a universal ban on it how could there be various ballots and private efforts?

  • http://www.marinerfan.net pizzaman

    Here is the text of the Michael J Fox Missorui ad. Notice the complete omission of the word ‘embryonic’:
    As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures.
    Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local, but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans, Americans like me.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Nice try but you don’t really have much there. Indeed dropping the ban would ‘expand research’ (which is why you presumably oppose dropping the ban, it would expand research in a direction you feel is unethical). Violating the ban probably does entail criminal sanctions (and anyone know if Senator Jim Talent advocated banning non-Federal ESC research?).
    Even better, “a chance for hope” is hardly a promise for cures. In fact you could even say Fox was being too modest here. He could have just as honestly dropped either the word chance or hope (as in “a chance for cures” or “a hope for cures”). But wow! A ‘chance for hope’ doesn’t seem like much of a sure thing.
    Most Americans at this point are wise enough to take any advertising with a grain of salt, especially political advocacy ads. I notice that you ignored the counter point that those advocating the ban have given the impression that it would actually make a difference to at least some embryos when in reality it simply alters the method that will be used to destroy them anyway.

  • ucfengr

    Indeed dropping the ban would ‘expand research
    How so? You seem to be assuming that lifting the ban on federal funding of ESCR would result in an increase in the available funding, which I don’t think is a valid assumption. At best you can say that federal dollars could be redirected from other avenues of stem cell research to embryonic. In other words, diverting funding from an area that has shown promise to one that has yet to.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Why would you assume there is a single bucket of Federal Money called ‘stem cell research’ so lifting the ban would mean less money for, say adult stem cell research? Why isn’t it just as likely that proposals for embryonic stem cell research wouldn’t beat out proposals for types of research that have nothing to do with stem cells?
    Again if research grants are awarded based on ‘promise’ then lifting a ban on any particular type of research would indeed expand it since the judges would be able to consider more choices than existed before the ban.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    To put it another way suppose the Miss America contest was changed to allow candidates from Canada and Mexico. That would indeed be expanding it even if the winner was still from one of the 50 states.

  • Alan

    Boontoon said: “As a result of the ban you have caused the creation of various research funds dedicated to embryonic stem cell research.”
    Ummm, no. As a result of the ban, some groups of *people* have *decided* to *take action* to create new research funds.
    This is lazy thinking or writing – the ban did not create anything. People did.
    The whole point of the “ban” was to eliminate the opportunity for one group people to force others to do something that they thought was immoral. Basically, supporters of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on new lines of embryos are upset that they can’t take money from people opposed to it to pay for it.
    How’s that for moral thinking!

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Ummm, no. As a result of the ban, some groups of *people* have *decided* to *take action* to create new research funds.
    Which almost certainly would not have happened had the ban never been established. Or if it did such proposals would have been voted down with the very potent argument of “why have dedicated funding for just one type of research? Let them apply for research grants like everyone else”
    The whole point of the “ban” was to eliminate the opportunity for one group people to force others to do something that they thought was immoral.
    Really? Before the ban the Federal gov’t was drafting people and forcing them to perform experiments on frozen embryos?
    Basically, supporters of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on new lines of embryos are upset that they can’t take money from people opposed to it to pay for it.
    Something you can say for any and every use of government money. Aren’t supporters of the war in Iraq taking money from those opposed to paying for it? How about my annoying neighbor for whom I’m paying (partially) his social security and Medicare?
    Why is one group allowed their own special exemption? If we are going to fund research that is awarded by judging grant applications then that’s what we have decided to do. Part of living in a democratic society is the fact that there is no guarantee that you will always agree with the decisions made.
    Anyway I thought the argument was that ESC was morally wrong. I didn’t realize it was that it was about it being morally wrong to offend a group that just happens to object to ESC funded by the Federal gov’t.

  • George

    Before Boon goes completely off the rails and comes up with some analogy even more risible than the Miss America contest and a sockpuppet even less credible than MJF of Mars Attacks! fame (he has what… a GED?), let’s try and understand one other thing here. Stem cell research is a global effort. MJF might think the answer is on a golden scroll buried under the Arch in St. Louis, but an American grant or two here and there is nothing. After all, one of the major breakthroughs was made by Hwang Woo-Suk, wasn’t it? Oops, sorry. Shouldn’t have mentioned him, what with his lying, fabricating data, and harvesting eggs from his female subordinates under pressure. Why, these sanctified higher-moral-ground and greater-good scientists supposedly show up at the lab clanking around in armor to save the maidens and find the Holy Grail. Right?
    You know, all this BS about “soon, the quadriplegics will be on the track team and MJF will be doing a remake of Flesh Gordon” just might, just might, be a teensy-weensy bit more credible if they had an animal model that worked at least 10% of the time.

  • Beth

    This statement is factually incorrect based on the Nature article
    “stems cells that have the ability to create muscle, bone, fat, blood vessel, nerve, and liver cells in the laboratory”
    This has not yet been established.
    Read at News.yahoo.com
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070107/ap_on_he_me/stem_cells
    “…However, the scientists noted they still don’t know exactly how many different cell types can be made from the stem cells found in amniotic fluid. They also said that even preliminary tests in patients are years away.”

  • Alan

    “Really? Before the ban the Federal gov’t was drafting people and forcing them to perform experiments on frozen embryos?” No, they were forcing all citizens to pay for this research.
    “Something you can say for any and every use of government money.”
    Now, that’s a great point…. we have wandered far, indeed, from the principles upon which this great republic was founded, haven’t we judging by the intrusion of government into every part of our lives.
    “Why is one group allowed their own special exemption? ”
    Who said that?
    “I didn’t realize it was that it was about it being morally wrong to offend a group that just happens to object to ESC funded by the Federal gov’t.”
    Where did I use the word offend? That is leftist thinking, not mine. I do not want to be forced at the barrel of a gun to pay money so people can engage in the immoral behavior of killing unborn humans.
    Face it, your argument is silly: Trying to stop immoral behavior results in more immoral behavior – it’s just like the argument made that fighting jihadis creates more jihadis so we should just lie down to their demands. Silly.

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    You know, all this BS about “soon, the quadriplegics will be on the track team and MJF will be doing a remake of Flesh Gordon” just might, just might, be a teensy-weensy bit more credible if they had an animal model that worked at least 10% of the time.
    Then you should support lifting the ban. Certainly there are plenty of grant requests based on non-ESC research whose animal models work more than 10% of the time.
    “Something you can say for any and every use of government money.”
    Now, that’s a great point…. we have wandered far, indeed, from the principles upon which this great republic was founded, haven’t we judging by the intrusion of government into every part of our lives.

    Perhaps but give it a break. It has never been a principle of gov’t that policies must have 100% support from taxpayers. The only ‘political philosopher’ who shares your point of view is Osama bin Laden who has justified attacking US civilians on the grounds that they are taxpayers and therefore just as legit. targets as US troops. Good compnay you keep there.
    Face it, your argument is silly: Trying to stop immoral behavior results in more immoral behavior – it’s just like the argument made that fighting jihadis creates more jihadis so we should just lie down to their demands. Silly.
    Yea, a government policy having the opposite effect than was intended is a silly argument. Yea right, like that’s never happened. No anti-poverty policies ended up producing more poverty, no anti-crime policies ever made crime worse? Speaking of silly arguments, do you actually have one other than just declaring arguments you don’t like as ‘silly’?

  • http://kairosfocus.blogspot.com/ kairosfocus

    Onlookers:
    I am astonished at how easily Boonton has been allowed to change the subject, from the breakthrough announcement that there is in fact now yet another non-ethically questionable source of stem cells, one that may well have BETTER potential than embryo-destructive sources for cells.
    Notice the response of Christians to this evident breakthrough: WELCOMING THE NEW, ETHICAL SOURCE, as Joe Carter summarises above. (In short the rhetoric about how Christians invariably and irreconcilably oppose scientific/medical etc progress is again seen for the ill-willed slander that it is.)
    Further to the point, we see clearly that there is now good reason to believe that there is even less basis for persisting in embryo-destructive stem cell research.
    So, will the evolutionary materialists and their fellow travellers now agree with us that we have now got even more reason to turn from the deliberate destruction of life in the womb in the name of a mirage of alleged hope of scientific and medical progress? Indeed, in the teeth of the evidence that so-called adult and umbilical cord-blood sources – i.e. unquestionably ethical sources – of such stem cells are the ones that have built up a track record of success; over seventy treatments so far as I recall?
    [On long observation of track record, I am not holding my breath. Wise people should therefore draw the obvious conclusion on the implications of such world views and their amoral public policy agendas. BOONTON: for shame!]
    Grace, open our eyes
    Gordon

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Gordon doesn’t get it. This has nothing to do with destroying embryos. Read the comments here, no one cares whether embryos get destroyed or not, they only care that tax money will be used to destroy embryos.

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    For Gordon’s benefit, let’s review it again.
    Without a ban announcements such as this are indeed good news. Why? Because it lends more weight to non-ESC applications. Since there’s intense competition for research funds any breakthrough in ESC alternatives makes ESC less competitive.
    With a ban, though, various private funds have been set up dedicated to ESC research. Since these funds are dedicated non-ESC proposals won’t compete for those funds. The only competition will be between various different types of ESC proposals (there might be some wiggle room here, if anyone reads the actual language behind some of these funds they may be simply dedicated to stem cell research in general so non-ESC stem cell proposals might still have a chance to compete).

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