An experimental treatment in Spain has shown promising possibilities to rebuild breasts damaged by tumors with the use of fat taken from the patient’s abdomen, removing stem cells, then injecting them into the chest, in a process that takes from four to five hours and does not leave scars.
Five patients from Madrid were the first in Spain to undergo the pioneering operation performed at Gregorio Maranon in collaboration with three other European hospitals in Great Britain, Italy, and Belgium. Mesenchymal stem cells, adult stem cells with the ability to transform into different tissues, are the key in this process. If the technique functions, something that will be able to be assessed in a year, it will mean that the cells have generated new blood vessels to heal the area.
The candidates were all recovering from a tumor called T1 No Mo. These are very small tumors that have not metastasized to the ganglion or anywhere else. The conditions to participate in the experiment were very strict in order to avoid complications feared by stem cell researchers, since stem cells have a great reproductive capacity and could cause cancer. “In this case, the stem cells are separated, but not stimulated. The women will also undergo ultrasounds in Lyon”, explained plastic surgeon, Jose’ Maria Lasso.
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Human adult stem cells are being used to cure cirrhosis and other serious live diseases. Another 15 people in Brazil on the liver transplant waiting list have been treated by cellular therapy with encouraging results. “We are still in a strictly experimental phase” underlined Luiz Guilherme Costa Lyra, hepatologist and coordinator of the study performed by Sao Rafael di Salvador Hospital, collaborating with San Raffaele Hospital of Milan. “We must clarify that this therapy is not available for any patient outside of the experiment, so it is useless for anyone to write us asking to get into the study.”
He continued, “Furthermore we must admit that the results are decidedly interesting and we intend to continue along this path.” The project, after having passed clinical safety and efficiency tests on animals and clinical safety tests on human beings, entered into the clinical testing phase on humans three years ago. Specialists at Sao Rafael di Salvador experimented on a group whose only hope was a liver transplant, but probably would have never received one due to the length of the waiting list. Cellular therapy allowed for a significant improvement in their conditions.
FROM ANIMALS TO MAN
The story begins just after the year 2000 with experiments on mice and rats with serious liver diseases. Milena Soares, who led this phase of experimentation said, “We worked with animals affected by serious hepatic fibrosis caused by infection, toxic substances, or alcohol (hepatic fibrosis is a condition in which healthy tissue is replaced by fibrous tissue, which causes a loss in liver function and tissue disorganization which can result in hepatic cirrhosis, editor’s note). The animals were treated with non-embryonic stem cells and responded well to the therapy, showing a significant improvement in their condition.”
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In a couple of months, the first test to verify if embryonic stem cells directly injected inside patients’ brain plagued by stroke can regenerate damaged areas, will start in Scotland.
A team from Southern General Hospital of Glasgow selected 4 groups of 3 patients that will be treated during the next 2 years.
Firstly patients will take a dose of 2 millions embryonic stem cells. The amount will be gradually increased to 20 millions of stem cells, which is what doctors think patients need to start the re-creating processes.
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It works in racehorses. Who knows if it’s possible in humans. A technique using stem cells to repair damage to the Achilles tendon is about to be tested in Great Britain.
British biotech company MedCell Bioscience has announced that it will begin human testing in the next six months and expects to perform a broad study in various European hospitals in 2011.
Patients will receive injections containing millions of their own stem cells extracted and multiplied in the lab to regenerate damaged tissue. Over 1,500 racehorses have been treated with the same procedure and the results have given researchers a reason to be optimistic. They indicate a 50% reduction in relapses in the next three years compared to conventional treatments.
“The passage from the veterinary clinic to human medicine is uncommon,” said Nicola Maffulli, an Italian orthopedic surgeon known as the ‘tendon king’, an expert in sports medicine who has been living in England for years. Maffulli will be collaborating in the human testing. “Normally testing goes the other way.” Stem cell therapy to repair damage to the Achilles tendon has become very popular in racehorses, where animals worth millions of dollars race against one another. The technique was used for the first time by surgeons at the Royal Veterinary College in London.
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In the debate on embryonic stem cell research, or its regulations, it seems that the wind is changing both in the US, where President Obama has just changed the rigid guidelines laid out by his predecessor George W. Bush, and in Austria. “There was no pre-arranged organization, however, we were not against it,” said Christiane Druml, the president of the Bioethical Commission, presenting their new recommendations on March 23. A large majority, “including 17 out of 25 women”, believe that embryonic stem cell research is “scientifically relevant, morally legitimate, and worthy of support” and recommended a substantial easing of the laws. Five members of the commission proposed the laws to be stricter (these five supporters were not present at the meeting and one of their supporters, philosopher Guenther Poeltner, criticized their absence from the audience). The previous majority was overturned. In 2002 the Austrian government almost completely blocked the entire EU research program because it called for financing for embryonic stem cells. Now they are moving in the opposite direction.
The Commission suggested: a) the use of excess embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures; b) “therapeutic cloning”; c) hybrid human and animal embryos.
Legislative uncertainty halts research.
The commission does not only want liberal laws, but also clearer laws: “Current legislative uncertainty has been an obstacle to the development of research” explained Ulrich Koertner (Evangelical Theology, University of Vienna). Although part of the legal uncertainty has been overcome, molecular biologist Erwin Wagner (IMP) two years ago was the first and only scientist to perform experiments with embryonic stem cells in Austria. This was possible under past laws by importing embryonic stem cells from the US because it was not clear if they could be produced in Austria (the minority party voted to ban production and importation).
Now their production could be authorized. Their source would be “excess embryos”, which go not lead to great ethical problems. Reserve embryos not used by medically assisted fertilization programs are frozen for ten years and then destroyed. The explicit liberalization of “therapeutic cloning” is a more delicate issue (the current law is controversial). In this case embryos would be produced for the sole purpose of creating stem cells (and then the embryos would be destroyed). Finally, “hybrid” embryos, which are currently legal only in Great Britain, could become legal (the Commission is only an advisory body). This would constitute a small revolution, which would then give the final call to researchers. Until now, no one has followed Wagner’s example, and not just for legislative reasons, but more because embryonic stem cell research requires training, and lots of funding. Continue reading
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