The stem cell debate in North America and Europe is shrouded in confusion, media hype, political spin and biased, ill-informed input from self-interested 'celebrities.'
The debate centres on embryonic stem cells -- which are promoted as a potential panacea. No mention is ever made of any other sources of stem cells in these debates and the earth shattering moral, religious, ethical and legal objections to embryonic stem cells are brushed aside as irrelevant to the overall 'good,' which will come from embryonic stem cell therapies.
While at Cambridge University in the early 1980s, Bob Edwards and I carried out the early experiments on embryonic stem cells using a mouse model. We showed that the cells had enormous potential in that they repaired radiation damage in mice very readily.
Despite the promising results in the laboratory, we knew that to try to apply such technology to a human in the clinic would raise serious objections. The current debate highlights these early fears.
One major debate-crushing point that is consistently ignored is the fact that there is another easily accessible, just as promising, source of stem cells. This source is umbilical cord blood.
Umbilical cord blood stem cells have been collected and transplanted since 1988. Over 3,000 transplants have been carried out worldwide for over 45 different diseases. These diseases include the leukaemias, related blood disorders and repair of the bone marrow following high dose chemotherapy for cancer.
Umbilical cord blood could be collected at the birth of every baby -- but cord blood collection occurs in less than one per cent of deliveries.
This life-saving source of stem cells is being discarded as biological waste on a daily basis while other people argue for the creation of embryonic stem cells.
Umbilical cord blood stem cells have also been shown to be capable of forming every tissue type in the body, the exact argument used in favour of embryonic stem cells. Umbilical cord blood stem cells carry just as much, if not more, promise as embryonic stem cells in terms of future therapies for a whole range of disease.
The collection of umbilical cord blood stem cells is a quick, painless and risk free procedure carried out just after a baby is born. A needle, attached to a blood collection bag, is inserted into the umbilical cord and the blood is allowed to drain into the collection bag. This is then sent to the laboratory for processing and freezing in liquid nitrogen. Once frozen the sample is stable indefinitely. This process is a cheap and easy way of obtaining stem cells that have all the potential of embryonic stem cells without the objections.
The stem cell debate is confused. The public is confused. The politicians are confused. The hard fact is that we should be concentrating all of our time, money and expertise on the development of umbilical cord blood stem cell technologies. This is where the current and future applications of stem cells truly lie.