During today’s first session of the Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference, scientists, doctors and patients had an opportunity to share not only the advances in adult stem cell research, but also the potential it has to transform modern day health care.
The ethical debate on the use of embryonic stem cells has, according to Dr. Robin Smith, stifled the advances made in adult stem cells, which are derived from adult tissue samples. Dr. Smith serves as president of the Stem for Life Foundation as well as CEO of NeoStem, a leading developer in cellular therapy.
Stem Cell Therapy, especially using cultivated adult stem cells , can be used to regenerate dying tissue in the body of a person suffering debilitating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
“In November 2001, we kicked of the first Stem Cell Conference. Since then, the entire world has awakened.”
“By improving the clinical outcomes, we can save hundreds of millions of lives,” she said. “We’re not talking about medications,” she continued. “We’re talking about repairing the heart with adult stem cells. Re-inserting these cells into a damaged organ is turning back the clock. In just 17 months, we have seen stunning advancements in leukemia treatments.”
The work in stem cell research has only begun to be understood. The last conference did not have panels that discussed the benefits of cellular therapy on MS and diabetes. Dr. Smith stated that in the United States, $245 billion is spent on managing diabetes, which can cause blindness, stroke and amputations which is “only getting worse.”
“Cellular therapy has the potential to rewrite the history of this disease,” she said. “Adult stem cells is something we can all agree upon; they are ethically pure. We can grasp what’s inside of us and introduce them into the body.”
The purpose of the conference, she concluded, was meant to inspire change and to promote the truth and promise behind stem cell science. “We hope to show that you no longer have to choose between science and faith.
In Search of Hope
Moderating the first day of the conference was NBC News correspondent Meredith Vieira, who along with husband and veteran journalist, Richard M. Cohen, opened up on Cohen’s battle with MS.
The choice to attend the conference, Vieira said, “was a personal one.” In an emotional moment during her address, Vieira said, “I’m not only a journalist looking for answers; I’m a wife looking for hope.”
Despite the fact that there are currently no treatment available for those suffering from secondary progressive MS, “cell therapy has given hope.”
Continuing on the theme of hope, Cohen wished to emphasize its importance, despite that it is “elusive, difficult to grasp and hard to sustain.”
“When i was diagnosed 40 years. my neurologist only said ‘I’m sorry’ and never talked about a plan. There was no therapy available [for MS].
“Its hard to get up everyday and look in the mirror. We are not the people we used to be in terms of what we do and who we are. The assault on us is not just on our bodies; it’s in the spirit, on how we see ourselves, our self-esteem, our self- confidence, our willingness to go out and try to have a future. Its a very daunting task.”
Cohen stated his belief that adult stem cell therapy is the future, acknowledging that he gave up going to a neurologist and conventional therapies, simply because “they don’t work significantly enough.”
I look at MS and the work being done [in adult stem cell therapy] and its extraordinary, i believe in the future, that patients like me won’t be going to conventional therapies. We’re going to all seek cell therapies,” Cohen said.
Dr. Saud A. Sadiq, a board certified neurologist who has done extensive research on the cause of MS in order to find a cure, was the first panelist to speak. Given the context of the meeting held in the Vatican, Dr. Sadiq commented on the importance of faith in confronting illness. “I’m a strong believer in the faith and I use it to counsel my patients […] when they start to lose hope,” he said.
“When we find moments of darkness, when we see patients like Richard [Cohen], we draw from faith the hope to continue. I also receive inspiration and hope from all my patients.”
A ‘Paradigm Shift’ in Medicine
Dr. Richard Burt, chief of the Division of Immunotherapy at the Department of Medicine in Northwestern University in Chicago, stated that there is a “paradigm shift” in using adult stem cell therapy. “It is a one time treatment as opposed to continuous medical treatments.”
Dr. Burt went onto say that adult stem cell therapy is safe and doesn’t use cancer drugs, such as radiation, while building up an entirely new immune system.
Two patients who received stem cell therapy under Dr. Burt’s care, Roxane Julia Beygi and Jim Danhakl, shared with participants their positive experiences after receiving adult stem cell therapies. Beygi stated that conventional medicines only added to her problems, which included difficulty walking, dizziness, and disorientation.
“Since having the transplant, my life has changed,” she said. I’m thinking about what courses or universities I should attend. Even the clothes that I have to wear. I think about my future. I have a future now.”
Danhakl, who served as a Navy fighter pilot for 25 years, spoke on his struggle and the hope he received from Dr. Burt’s treatments.
“I went from running a marathon to barely able to walk 200-300 feet,” Danhakl said. “When your life is being robbed of you, its very difficult to have hope.
“By the time i saw Dr. Burt, i was in a wheelchair, then bedridden. i would pass out, severe double vision, hearing going in and out. Old friends were coming to visit me to say goodbye, and I was thinking “This is it.”
Danhakl said that within two weeks of receiving the adult stem cell treatment, he began taking his first steps. Within a month, he began to walk without the use of a walker and is now completely normal. Despite have some occasional pain on his feet, Danhakl said it was small compared to being at death’s door.
After thanking Dr. Burt for saving his life, Danhakl expressed his amazement at the fact that such therapy is unknown throughout the world. “This procedure,” he said, “is saving people, like myself and Roxane.” I hear people talk about MS and say there there is no treatment and I’m like ‘Why isn’t this shouted from the mountain top.”
Concluding the first session of the day, Neil Warma, CEO and President of Opexa Therapeutics, at first admitted that he could not see the connection between the Vatican and science in hosting the three day conference. After becoming familiar with the previous conference, Warma said that he “appreciated the Vatican’s approach to education.”
The world is finally waking up to the potential that cell therapy has to offer,” he said.
The CEO of Opexa explained the benefits of Tcelna, a T-cell immunotherapy for Multiple Sclerosis. Tclena, he said, “may have the potential to address the significant unmet medical needs of the large MS community.”
Tclena uses the patient’s own cells, by isolating T-cells in patients, expanding those cells to a therapy, and re-inserting them into a patient. Warma stated that the “patient’s own cells act as the drug” in rebuilding damaged tissue.
Although Tcelna has passed the second phase of clinical trials, Warma stated that there is still much time left before it is made widely available. “Today’s meeting is a significant step in bringing therapies to the patients in need,” he said.