Stem Cells in Queenstown

Icsis

A recent news article reports that a regenerative medicine and research centre is planned for Queenstown. While the current therapies offered by those involved are all from adult stem cells, the involvement on Dr Samuel Wood from San Diego is troubling. He and his company, Stemagen, are known for human cloning to create human embryonic stem cells. Samuel Wood headed the team that created the first human clones. All 5 were clones of him, but they were only allowed to develop to the blastocyst stage before they were destroyed.

The centre planned for Queenstown will be using existing stem cell therapies. These are based on the patient’s own adult stem cells. These can be used without fear of the patient rejecting the cells, as sometimes happens with organ transplants. But they are also planning to do research, and that is where the association with Dr Wood is worrying.

Dr Wood’s company continues to research human cloning and human embryonic stem cells from those clones. But he depends on human oocytes (eggs) to generate his clones; and it’s proved difficult to find egg donors. New Zealand represents a potential source of egg donors; but while it might be legal, it’s currently not legal to pay donors here. This would make it difficult although not impossible to do his research. Although that might soon change, the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology have suggested that the “Compensation levels” for gamete (sperm and egg) donors should be increased.

This is a very concerning development. Egg donation is a highly medicated and invasive process that exposes the donor to significant risks. Queenstown attracts young people because of the adventure sports in the area. The wages aren’t that good and the cost of living in Queenstown is high. It would be disturbing if the Ministry of health allowed a situation where young women in New Zealand could be put at risk of permanent health problems for a short term financial gain.

We shouldn’t allow compensation for egg donation in New Zealand, and we certainly do not want to become the embryonic stem cell capital of the Pacific.

However, the proposed regenerative medicine centre for Queenstown does show the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells in medicine. Embryonic stem cell therapy remains a dream. But adult stem cells are being used in medicine right now. The research money that has gone into using embryonic stem cells to cure Parkinson’s disease and repair spinal cord injuries hasn’t cured anyone. Worse still, embryonic research has taken money from other research programs which were much closer to human trials.

But the real toll of embryonic stem cell treatment is the human toll. Women are reduced to donors, at risk to themselves. And the embryos created as treated as biological research material that can be destroyed to generate the hope of a cure. Hardly the way to treat the youngest and most defenceless humans.

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