Science in Society Archive

Cord Blood Stem Cells Mend Spinal Injury

Stem cells isolated from umbilical cord blood enable her to walk again after 19 years. No need for embryonic stem cells. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

A patient who could not stand up for the past 19 years is now walking after stem cells isolated from umbilical cord blood were injected into the damaged areas of her spine.

The 37 year old woman received treatment from a team of Korean researchers led by Prof. Song Chan-hun at Chosun University, Prof. Kang Kyung-sun at Seoul National University and Dr. Han Hoon at Seoul Cord Blood Bank. The researchers claimed they had performed a "miracle".

According to Prof. Song, the stem cells were transplanted on 12 October 2004, and in just three weeks, she started to walk with the help of a walker.

The patient's legs were paralysed after an accident in 1985, which damaged her lower back and hips, and since then, she was wheelchair bound.

The research team will test the efficacy of the new therapy on four more patients as soon as they get clearance from the Chosun University ethics board and the government, and will report their research to the scientific world within the first half of the next year.

Song's colleagues Kang and Han stress the advantage of the new treatment in avoiding the huge ethical problems of using human embryonic stem cells that involves creating and destroying human embryos (see "No case for human embryonic stem cells research", this series). Umbilical cord blood cells have been routinely discarded after the birth of a baby in Korea.

The other advantages of using umbilical cord blood cells, according to Kang and Han, are that, unlike embryonic stem cells, they do not give rise to fatal teratomas (tumors containing jumbled up and disorganised cell types), and being relatively immature cells, they do not trigger a big immune reaction, and hence a strict cell type match is not required.

The Seoul Cord Blood Bank now retains blood from about 45 000 umbilical cords, and are enough to cover all Koreans.

This story strikes yet another serious blow to those clamouring for human embryonic stem cells research. But misinformation has already begun.

According to a report claiming to be from the editors of the American Journal of Bioethics, the story is being trumpeted everywhere as the 'research Reeve was pushing for, if only society would have allowed it to go forward'. Instead, the more likely "spin", it said, is just the opposite; that the embryonic stem cells Reeve lobbied for wasn't what he needed. Actor Christopher Reeve, who died recently, was paralysed after being injured in an accident, and up until his death was lobbying for human embryonic stem cells research which he hoped would cure people like him.

Astonishingly, these 'bioethicists' end by stating that, " the power of adult cells to heal cannot be fully explored without continuing research on embryos at least for a few more years." Do they really understand the science involved? Are they in the business to sow confusion among the public and policy-makers?

Article first published 13/12/04


  1. "Korean scientists succeed in stem cell therapy" by Kim Tae-gyu, the Korean Times 26 November 2004
  2. "Korean stem cell claims" 28 November 2004

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