The Magazine

Umbilical Accord

Senate Democrats resist a stem cell solution.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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FOUR MILLION BABIES ARE BORN in this country every year, bearing gifts of inestimable value. Foremost among these, of course, is the love they bring into the world and elicit from it. More practically, however, these infants bring with them something that we are learning has great potential to alleviate human suffering: the stem cells contained in the blood of their umbilical cords.

For example, as reported in the peer-reviewed medical journal Cytotherapy (Vol. 7, 368-373), umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells have restored feeling and some mobility to a woman who had been paralyzed with a spinal cord injury for 19 years. While we must remember that one dramatically improved patient does not an efficacious treatment make, the potential for cord blood to treat paralysis was further boosted with the recent announcement that rats with spinal cord injury also showed moderate improvement after being treated with human UCB stem cells (Acta Neurochirurgica, Vol. 147, 985-992).

That's not all. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (352:20, May 19, 2005), infants with Krabbe's disease, a terrible illness that results in progressive neurological deterioration and death in early childhood, showed impressive improvement when treated before the onset of symptoms. UCB stem cells have also successfully treated sickle cell anemia. So far 67 human afflictions have been successfully treated with umbilical cord blood stem cells, and more may soon be added to the list. In animal studies, researchers have demonstrated the potential of UCB stem cells to treat stroke (Annals of the N.Y. Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1049, 84-96). Some of these cells also appear to be "pluripotent," that is, potentially able to transform into all tissue types--the characteristic supposedly making embryonic stem cells superior to adult stem cells, according to many researchers (Cell Proliferation, Vol. 38, 245-255).

And there is even more good news about umbilical cord blood stem cells: Unlike embryonic stem cells, UCB stem cells don't cause dangerous tumors. Moreover, they are easier to tissue-type to prevent rejection than are bone marrow stem cells. And here's another big plus: This research is utterly uncontroversial. No embryos are being cloned. No embryos are being destroyed.

Despite all this, umbilical cord blood stem cells remain woefully underutilized in research laboratories and medical clinics. This is primarily a supply problem. Rather than being "banked" (deep frozen and stored) for future use, most cord blood is still thrown away. As a result, most of the banked umbilical cord blood is maintained privately by parents for the potential future use of their own children, and is thus unavailable for wider use.

Congress, supported by President Bush, has before it a bipartisan plan that, if passed, would dramatically increase the amount of cord blood available for medical use and in research. The Bone Marrow and Cord Blood Therapy and Research Act of 2005 (S. 1317) would create a national UCB distribution system supported by about $175 million over five years. Among its provisions, the measure would:

* establish a system of publicly funded UBC banking, allowing parents to donate cord blood at no cost;

* dramatically increase the genetic diversity of stored UCB stem cells, so the banked stem cells will have sufficient genetic diversity to assure potential patients of obtaining a good match and avoiding tissue rejection;

* provide sufficient funds to ensure quality control of the banked stem cells;

* create a clearinghouse for information sharing and sample exchanges among regional storage facilities, so a California patient could obtain stem cells from, say, Missouri, if the latter sample is the best genetic match.

The cord blood legislation is supported across the political spectrum. No senator has publicly announced his opposition. The House version has already been passed by an all but unanimous 431-1.

Yet despite this widespread enthusiasm, the measure is stalled in the Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist wants the bill moved to the floor for an immediate vote. To do so in the waning days of this session, he would need the unanimous consent of all senators. That isn't a problem for the majority party. According to Eric Ueland, Frist's chief of staff, "Republican senators are, to a member, ready to vote for and pass this legislation." What about across the aisle? "Democrats have paid lip service to the bill," Ueland says, but their "leadership is working behind the scenes to hold it up and prevent it from coming to a vote."