Dr. discusses stem cell research at Harrison church

Liz Hayes
| Monday, Jan. 15, 2007

Dr. James Rossetti of West Penn Hospital fears the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research is overshadowing the success doctors have had using adult stem cells.

Rossetti, an adult stem cell transplant physician, presented his argument Sunday for why the less controversial -- and, in his mind, more promising -- use of adult stem cells should usurp the attention now given to embryonic stem cells.

A stem cell is a basic human building block that can reproduce itself prolifically and sometimes be induced to grow into many types of cells. Scientists have great hopes that coaching these cells to replace or repair diseased or damaged cells could lead to cures and treatments for a vast array of medical conditions, including spinal cord injuries, cancers and Parkinson's disease.

While embryonic stem cells are generated from barely developed human embryos, adult stem cells are rare types of cells found in existing adult tissue.

Rossetti, speaking before about 40 people at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Natrona Heights, Harrison, said his Catholic morals and scientific background lead him to believe adult stem cells are the way to go.

He said although a lot of hype surrounds the promise of embryonic cells, they have not been used to treat any disease.

On the other hand, he said, about 300 people a year are treated in Pittsburgh with adult and cord blood stem cells. Cord blood stem cells are derived from umbilical cord blood.

He talked about nearly a dozen of his patients with diseases such as Hodgkin's lymphoma, leukemia and bone marrow disorders who were treated with stem cells from their own bodies or from adult donors. Many of those patients who were not expected to live more than a couple of years have seen their diseases eradicated or in remission, he said.

He said the adult stem cell transplants he oversees are successful about 50 percent of the time and acknowledged that not all of his patients survived.

"We have a ways to go," he said.

But he argued that the science of using adult stem cells is much further along than embryonic cells and without a moral question.

He said the Catholic church supports three of the four methods of gathering stem cells, including using adult cells. Other church-supported methods include use of cord blood cells and embryonic germ cells, which are derived from embryos that are further along in development but are either aborted or miscarried. The church supports research on embryonic germ cells from miscarriages but not from abortions, Rossetti said.

"Let's find ways that aren't going to result in the destruction of life," Rossetti said.

Embryonic stem cell proponents -- especially celebrity spokesmen including actors Michael J. Fox and the late Christopher Reeve -- have argued that embryonic cells show the most promise because they have the ability to transform into any type of tissue while adult stem cell growth appears more limited.

The Rev. Gary Krummert at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament said Rossetti's presentation was timely, because stem cell legislation was reintroduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ellen Davis, of Richland, said she attended because her father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

She said her father is opposed to embryonic stem cell research and she wanted to learn more about other avenues. She said was impressed with Rossetti's blending of science and religion.

"He's an outstanding person and researcher, and you can tell he's deeply rooted in his faith," she said.

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