The (Ethical) Superiority of Adult Stem Cells

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) told Associated Press on November 28, 2006, that more money for stem cell research will top the agenda of the U. S. Senate.[1] And well it should. Additional funding for adult stem cell research is imperative.

Newspapers frequently confuse readers with headlines like “Pro-life Christians Oppose Stem Cell Research.”[2] But no one opposes all stem cell research. In fact, even though many people oppose killing embryos to harvest their stem cells, nearly all scientists, ethicists, and policy experts favor expanding adult stem cell research.

Adult stem cells are not harvested from human embryos, but from sources like bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, and even fat tissue. No harm is done when adult stem cells are retrieved. This means that, even if it turns out that adult stem cells are not superior to embryonic stem cells biologically, they are superior ethically.

Research is showing that adult stem cells are surprisingly flexible—perhaps as plastic as embryonic stem cells.[3] In his testimony before the President’s Council on Bioethics, David Prentice, then professor of life sciences at Indiana State University, declared: “Results from both animal studies and early human clinical trials indicate that [stem cells] have significant capabilities for growth, repair, and regeneration of damaged cells and tissues in the body, akin to a built-in repair kit or maintenance crew that only needs activation and stimulation to accomplish repair of damage. The potential of adult stem cells to impact medicine in this respect is enormous.”

Dr. Prentice, who now serves with the Family Research Council, was right about the potential of adult stem cells. Even though, to date, there are no existing therapies using embryonic stem cells, according to the editor of the prestigious journal Nature Biotechnology: “Meanwhile, forward steps continue to be made in the field of adult stem cell therapy. One estimate is that there are currently over 80 therapies and around 300 clinical trials underway using such cells.”[4]

And according to the National Institutes of Health, “Adult stem cells such as blood-forming stem cells in bone marrow (called hematopoietic stem cells or HSCs) are currently the only type of stem cell commonly used to treat human diseases . . .The clinical potential of adult stem cells has also been demonstrated in the treatment of other human diseases that include diabetes and advanced kidney cancer”[5]

Not only are adult tissues morally superior sources of stem cells, and not only are they showing tremendous flexibility, but when derived from the patient himself or herself the cells are not rejected by the body. Transplant patients must take immunosuppressant drugs to keep their bodies from rejecting the “foreign” kidney, liver, or whatever organ was transplanted. The same can be true of embryonic stem cells. Since they come from a source other than the patient’s own body, the rejection of those cells is a real problem.

Adult stem cells, on the other hand, may be derived from the patient’s own body and will not, therefore, be rejected.

So, with all the benefits of adult stem cells and with so few real benefits of embryonic stem cells, why would researchers be so insistent on experimenting on embryos?

First, because they do not affirm the sanctity of every human life, many see no reason not to kill embryos for their stem cells. Embryos are viewed as just another form of tissue. But human embryos are members of our species who should not be harmed. Second, follow the money. Funding for research on embryos is being made available by big biotech companies hoping to make it rich on the next new therapy or drug. To forgo embryonic stem cell research would be forgo some sources of funding for their labs. Finally, some scientists truly believe embryonic stem cells will prove more useful in producing therapies than adult stem cells. And because they do not view the human embryo to be deserving of special respect, they see no harm in treating the embryo as they would any other laboratory commodity.

But whether or not embryonic stem cells prove to be more “effective,” they are not the morally superior source of stem cells because their harvesting involves direct killing of a member of our species. The only morally responsible solution, then, is to expand adult stem cell research.



[2] For instance, Linda Man, “Falwell Condemns Stem-Cell Research,” Kansas City Star, 23 August 2006.

[3] R. Poulsom, M.R. Alison, S.J. Forbes, N.A. Wright, “Adult Stem Cell Plasticity,” Journal of Pathology 197(4) (2002), pp. 441-456.

[4] Editorial, “Proceed with Caution,” Nature Biotechnology 23, 763, July 2005.

[5] National Institutes of Heath, “Stem Cell Information: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Basic Questions # 2,” online at; accessed 7/16/06.