Our Bodies, Our Cells: FDA Regulation of Autologous Adult Stem Cell Therapies

By Mary Ann Chirba, J.D., D.Sc., M.P.H. and Alice A. Noble, J.D., M.P.H.

Stem cells have been an endless source of fascination and controversy since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996. This month’s announcement of a cloned human embryo from a single skin cell [1] came on the heels of Sir John B. Gurdon and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s receipt of the 2012 Nobel for Physiology and Medicine for their work with induced pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells can be embryonic or induced. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can generally be obtained from human embryos or by cloning embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), as was done for Dolly.  Gurdon and Yamanaka demonstrated that pluripotent cells may also be formed by reprogramming adult cells to an embryonic state, resulting in induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells without having to use eggs or cloning, or destroy embryos. However derived, pluripotent cells are capable of differentiating into virtually any cell type in the human body. This imbues them with great promise for scientific breakthroughs and medical advances, but also raises serious ethical, legal and safety concerns about their use.

Less controversial are “multipotent” adult stem cells (ASCs) which do not involve embryos or raise as many safety concerns as pluripotent cells.  ASCs are found throughout the body.  Their ability to differentiate is more limited than pluripotent cells but is vast nonetheless. The NIH’s clinicaltrials.gov site lists some 4500 ASC trials as compared with 27 for embryonic stem cells and 21 for induced pluripotent stem cells. Recent announcements of new stem cell treatments usually involve ASCs, such as last month’s news that a toddler born without a trachea received a new one made from her own adult stem cells.  It is therefore no surprise that ASCs have captured the attention of researchers, investors, physicians, patients and – increasingly – regulators, both here and abroad.

A growing number of physicians routinely offer treatments involving ASCs to their patients which can be performed in their offices.  Autologous adult stem cells, used to treat a variety of conditions, are harvested from the patient, processed, and returned to the same patient. It is no surprise that moving ASCs from laboratories to physician offices raises complex questions of law. We consider one of the more pressing ones: to what extent can the FDA regulate a physician’s ability to treat a patient with that patient’s own stem cells?  In the coming months, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on this very issue in United States v. Regenerative Sciences.[2]

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Using Tissue Samples to Make Genetic Offspring after Death

By Yu-Chi Lyra Kuo

Last month, John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka were jointly awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their research on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).  iPSCs are capturing the public imagination as embryonic stem cells did fifteen years ago, but without the controversy surrounding the destruction of embryos: iPSCs can be garnered instead from living somatic tissue of an organism at any point in its lifespan–even late adulthood.  Yamanaka’s research has shown that somatic cells can be “reprogrammed” to develop into any kind of cell–including an embryo–speaking to the vast research potential of iPSCs.

In light of the research potential of iPSCs, I wanted to highlight the results of a remarkable study (published last month) where scientists induced iPSCs from mice into primordial germ cell-like cells, and aggregated them with female somatic cells to create mature, germinal oocytes. The team was then able to show that these oocytes, after in vitro fertilization, yield fertile offspring. Essentially, the research team created viable mouse embryos from skin cells, and fertilized them using IVF to produce healthy mice, some of which have already produced offspring of their own.

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