Umbilical Cord Stem Cells Are Curing Patients

Interview With Two Pioneer Scientists

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ROME, JULY 27, 2005 ( Rome’s Gemelli Polyclinic works with an international network to make umbilical cord stem cells available to patients with acute leukemia, thalassemia, lymphomas and congenital immune-deficiencies.

The clinic runs a bank for umbilical cords, and any patient, from anywhere in the world, who is genetically compatible with one of the units of blood of the umbilical cords stored, can receive a unit of blood from the umbilical cord for transplant purposes.

An international network to identify donors has been operative since 1995, thanks to a computer file which has data on marrow and placenta blood donors worldwide.

The bank’s activities are coordinated by professor Giuseppe Leone, director of the Institute of Hematology of the Catholic University of Rome, and professor Salvatore Mancuso, director of the Department for the Protection of Woman and Nascent Life.

In this interview with ZENIT, Leone and Mancuso discuss the present state of stem cell research.

Q: What is your response to those who say that using embryonic stem cells, and not those from the umbilical cord, is the answer for illnesses such as leukemia, or of the blood in general?

Leone: First of all, let’s speak from a clinical point of view: Cells from embryos have never been used and they have certainly not demonstrated therapeutic capacities.

On the contrary, adult stem cells, and those of the umbilical cord, have demonstrated their validity in marrow transplants, for example, in the case of patients with thalassemia, or children with leukemia. At present, there is no patient who has been cured with embryonic stem cells. This must be clarified.

To those who say that ethics removes a “possibility” of cure, one should say that at most it removes a “hope.” But if we want to speak of hope, then we can experiment with animal embryos. Once we have studied animal embryos we will be able to say something on the subject, we will have understood a bit more. I do not see any reason why at present human embryos should be used. Ethical problems to one side, animals must be studied first.

Q: Are women told about the possibility of donating the umbilical cord to one of these banks?

Mancuso: Increasingly. When they come to give birth in our department, they request that the blood of the umbilical cord be donated because of the spirit of solidarity that is increasingly spreading. However, not all umbilical cords can be collected and kept for donation, as there are certain minimum requirements on the family history of both spouses.

It is necessary that the pregnancy come to its termination, as there is a whole series of counter-indications. We can collect for donations between 30-35% of the umbilical cords from births that take place in our department. But much of the blood collected from umbilical cords is useful for research.

At present, there is great interest in research, not only in our department, but also in hematology, cardiology and neurology, as adult stem cells have an extraordinary versatility and, in fact, are restorative.

Q: How long can these cells be stored?

Mancuso: I would dare to say that they can be stored for an infinite amount of time. Today there are cells that have been stored for 30 years and that, to a large extent, maintain their capacity to be used. At present, the scientific community in several research centers is seeking to store and multiply them in vitro, as the amount of stem cells that can be collected from a cord are not that many.

Leone: They have been used, above all, to patients with acute leukemia, thalassemia, lymphomas, or congenital immune-deficiencies. These sicknesses are benefiting at present the transplant of stem cells from the umbilical cord. Research, obviously, tries to go further. The blood of the cord can give us hope for other pathologies. Now there are hopes for heart disease.

Q: When you say that sicknesses “are benefiting,” what do you mean?

Leone: In the case of acute leukemia, there is a certain number of patients that are cured, in the case of thalassemia, the percentage is higher. In the case of immune-deficiencies, 70-80% are cured. In the case of leukemia, it is 35-40%. We are talking, that is, of cures.

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