06/21/2010, 00.00
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Damage from stem cell therapy. Caution never hurts

by Augusto Pessina*
The death of a person treated with stem cells has created debate among scholars. Caution is required, because although there is a lot of promising data in various fields of application, not all types of stem cells have demonstrated real therapeutic potential. Above all the good of the person must take first place.

Milan (AsiaNews) - The "Journal of the American Society of Nephrology," announced, June 17, the death by infection of a patient who was treated with an injection directly into the kidney of autologous stem cells of hematopoietic origin. An abnormal proliferative mass was discovered in the patients kidney of a type never seen before.

The news has created some debate because it seems to have cooled optimism regarding the therapeutic potential of stem cells. Canadian and Thai scholars have commented urging caution. In fact, in research laboratories new information about the biology of stem cells are emerging every day and many of these have allowed for some diseases, their use in experimental clinical trials in order to be able to assess their treatment capabilities. For the production of cells for therapeutic purposes (particularly mesenchymal stem cells) the so-called "cell factories" have already arisen in Italy capable of preparing large quantities of cells in GMP conditions for use in clinical trials.  

A particularly delicate point is that the use of a cell as a "medicine" requires not only that it be effective but also that the effectiveness corresponds to specific safety standards. This is to limit collateral damage and side effects, but mainly to avoid two fundamental risks: infectious and neoplastic risks. The above case is emblematic, particularly for the way used to obtain autologous stem cells from the patient's blood (stimulation with cytokines).

Without entering into technical matters, it must be reiterated once again that only a thorough study of stem cell biology will be provided us with a safe therapeutic system or otherwise minimize risk to the patient.

Every new avenue of exploration requires time and patience. Above all it demands that we avoid forced shortcuts, because the shortcuts are always dangerous. Moreover, the "biomedicine" should be less "bio" and more "medicine", in short closer to what "medical care" demands of us. Therefore the problem must be addressed primarily from the anthropological point of view because only within this horizon can "science" find its rightful place and vocation.

If the good of the human person is not put first, the risk of degradation becomes higher because other criteria will soon take its place.


* President of Italian associations of Cell Culture

Department of Public Health, Microbiology, Virology

University of Milan

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