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Examine the promise of stem cell research

Paul W. Kincade: The excitement about the area of research is warranted, but we must be careful not to confuse hope with hype.
By PAUL W. KINCADE
Published: 7/29/2010  2:25 AM
Last Modified: 7/29/2010  5:25 AM

Stem cells. Few words inspire so much hope, hype and controversy as these two. Yet while many use this phrase, few know its true meaning.

Stem cells in the body are capable of renewing themselves and becoming various types of cells. Think of them as lumps of clay that can be molded into all sorts of different shapes.

Stem cells come in many varieties, but the ones that have generated the lion’s share of press — and controversy — are embryonic stem cells. Scientists make them from fertilized eggs in the test tube, and they can make any tissue or organ in the body.

Recent research, however, has increasingly moved away from embryonic stem cells to focus, instead, on adult stem cells. Several types of adult stem cells exist naturally and replenish damaged or dying cells. Already, doctors have successfully treated hundreds of Oklahomans with stem cells recovered from bone marrow or umbilical cord blood. These treatments have saved the lives of patients suffering from blood diseases and those recovering from cancer treatments.

Laboratory experiments suggest that we might, for example, one day be able to take blood or skin from a person and transform it into nerve cells to treat spinal cord injuries. The technique also holds promise for type 1 (juvenile) diabetes, multiple sclerosis, deafness, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. But these treatments are still many years down the road, with extensive research and clinical trials necessary to establish their safety and effectiveness.

Through the support of the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, our state has made a strategic investment in adult stem cell research. With a five-year commitment of $5.5 million, the Trust established the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research. OCASCR aims to help Oklahoma scientists compete with well-funded researchers in other states.

In June, OCASCR took the first step toward realizing this goal, awarding $700,000 in competitive grants to researchers at Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. These awards will allow our state’s scientists to conduct adult stem cell research in areas such as osteoporosis and lung disease.

At this moment, stem cell research is moving at lightning speed. The number of reputable clinical trials involving stem cells—nearly 3,000—is staggering. But there are also many unscrupulous clinics hyping stem cell “therapies” that are ineffectual at best and, at worst, dangerous.

Going forward, OCASCR will work not only to promote adult stem cell research in our state but also to educate Oklahomans about the field. The excitement about the area of research is warranted, but we must be careful not to confuse hope with hype.

Paul W. Kincade, Ph.D., holds the William H. and Rita Bell Chair in Biomedical Research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and is the founding scientific director of the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research (www.ocascr.org).

Read more from this Tulsa World article here.