When Dr. Jeannie Fontana's mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), she discovered there were few treatment options—and the disease eventually killed her mother. Since then, Dr. Fontana, an internal medicine doctor, has become increasingly interested in the role stem cells can play in healing patients with ALS and other diseases.
Dr. Oz talks with Dr. Fontana about her role on the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee of California's Proposition 71—a plan to provide $3 billion to stem cell research over a span of 10 years—and the latest findings scientists are making with stem cells.
A stem cell is a "master cell" from which all other cells are created. These are the two basic types of stem cells:
•Embryonic stem cells: These cells are created a few days after a fetus is conceived. Because they have the potential to become any type of cell in the body, embryonic stem cells are thought to be the cells most capable of regenerating or repairing diseased cells.
•Adult stem cells: These cells can be found in a baby's umbilical cord or an adult's bone marrow and most other adult tissues. Adult stem cells have been thought to be less significant because they've been used in the past only to create similar cells.
The embryonic stem cells scientists use come from embryos that were created at in vitro fertilization clinics but never implanted into a woman's uterus, Dr. Fontana says. Those embryos are either no longer wanted or needed and would otherwise be discarded, but Dr. Fontana says they are nonetheless a point of debate. "The religious issue is that the point of life is the point of conception—when the sperm meets an egg—so if we destroy that cell, we are actually destroying human life," she says. "The biggest fear that I hear people have about stem cells is this ’slippery slope’—that if we understand the science, there will be somebody bad out there who will make people for body parts."
Luckily, Dr. Fontana says scientists are discovering that adult stem cells may actually be more valuable than previously thought. In fact, she says researchers are finding that adult stem cells can be turned back into an embryonic state. "The potential is that you could take your own skin cell and derive it into your own heart cells and be used for you—so you wouldn't have to worry about the immune rejection issue—which is a large one with heart transplants," Dr. Fontana says.
While the latest findings about the potential of adult stem cells is exciting, getting the Food and Drug Administration to fast-track stem cell therapies could take some time, Dr. Fontana says. "Because this is so new and so controversial, it will be interesting to see how the FDA ends up ruling on it," she says.
Stem cells have already been used by researchers to find treatments for diabetes, spinal cord injuries, macular degeneration and other health problems, but Dr. Fontana is hoping for a cure for ALS. "My intention really is to find a therapeutic cure for ALS and, in doing so, promoting stem cell science for all the other disease advocacy groups—but I use ALS as my model because it's near and dear to my heart," she says.
Published on June 29, 2008