By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 20, 2006
Mary Boyert, director of the archdiocesan Pro-Life Office, and Dr. Gerry Sotomayor are among those named July 3 by Gov. Sonny Perdue to the Commission for Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood Research and Medical Treatment.
The commission is composed of 15 members appointed by the governor. Created by executive order April 14, it will encourage cord blood stem cell donation and promote awareness of options available to expectant mothers; create a network of cord blood banks to provide safe and secure storage of newborn stem cells; and ensure the availability of these cells for research and life-saving medical procedures. The work is to be done in partnership with colleges or universities, hospitals, nonprofit organizations or private firms in Georgia. The commission, which is administratively attached to the Department of Human Resources, is to report to the governor by Dec. 1, 2007 concerning its activities with recommendations for any needed legislation to fulfill the goals of the executive order.
When a baby is born, the umbilical cord, placenta and amniotic fluid are rich in stem cells, which can be used for scientific research and medical treatments without destroying embryos. Each unit of cord blood has 1.5-2.5 million stem cells. Research using non-embryonic stem cells from postnatal tissue and fluid has already resulted in treatments for anemia, leukemia, lymphoma, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, sickle cell disease, spinal cord injury and Crohn’s disease. Therapies using these cells are also being studied for diseases as diverse as corneal degeneration, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Boyert, former president and executive director of Georgia Right to Life for 19 years and archdiocesan pro-life director for the past seven years, is honored to serve on the commission supporting research that does not present the moral conflict of embryonic stem cell research that destroys human embryos.
“I’m excited at the prospect of being able to help and support this ethical form of research being advanced in our state … that is already saving lives,” she said. “It will be a great opportunity to support this type of research in the state, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”
The governor’s executive order accomplishes many of the same objectives proposed in SB 596, sponsored by state Sen. David Shafer, which did not achieve final passage during the 2006 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly.
“It was great when the governor’s office went ahead and established the commission. We’re excited and that means we don’t have to wait another year,” Boyert said.
Heather Hedrick, press secretary for Gov. Perdue, said the commission because it was created by executive order is unfunded at this point, but legislators could decide to budget funding for it during the 2007 legislative session as needs are determined. She said that as the Georgia university system now has the most developed public cord blood banking facilities, there is expected to be an effort to combine their existing facilities with existing private cord blood banks to create a public bank in Georgia. Another major focus will be to increase awareness.
“Many people in the state don’t even know that umbilical cord blood is as valuable as it is,” Hedrick said.
Since private cord blood banking is “very, very cost prohibitive” it’s important that Georgia citizens know of the option to contribute to the public supply, Hedrick said. The commission will work with Stuart Brown, M.D., director of the Georgia Division of Public Health.
Boyert is also eager to increase awareness of the growing number of diseases being treated through the use of cord blood stem cells, and hopeful that it will become more common practice for pregnant woman to donate their baby’s cord blood with relative ease.
Other Catholics on the commission include Dr. Sotomayor and attorney James P. Kelly III, who is director of international affairs for the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy and a member of the United States delegation to the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights and who serves as chairman of the Social and Human Sciences Committee of the U.S. National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
An obstetrician gynecologist, Sotomayor is founder and president of the Babies for Life Foundation, which educates on the importance of cord blood donation and since 2001 has facilitated the collection from donor mothers of cord blood units from their newborn babies for research and to treat patients worldwide. They work with about 10 hospitals in Georgia and until now due to a lack of public storage facilities in Georgia have had to ship the cord blood to public cord blood banks outside the state to register the units deemed usable with the Caitlin-Raymond International Registry in Massachusetts and the National Marrow Donor Program, where they become available for research and treatment. Currently there are about 100,000 units of cord blood available for transplant worldwide. According to the Babies for Life Foundation, there is an estimated need for a half million units in order to have a 90 percent matching rate among those who already have diagnosed diseases who could benefit from the blood.
Sotomayor’s knowledge and work in this area will really benefit the commission, Boyert said. “We have him to thank for so much, he’s done so much.”
While commission members have a variety of viewpoints in regard to stem cell research that involves the destruction of the earliest form of human life, the embryo, Boyert anticipates that they will set that issue aside as they work together to find ways to support and encourage cord blood donation and research to provide immediate medical applications and future treatments.
“The good part about umbilical cord research is that none of these problems are involved. We all agree this is good research, and a good source of stem cells, and let’s get that going. And we don’t have to have any controversy about that. That’s what is so promising,” she said.
The human embryo has a small number of stem cells by the first week of development, and a technique to grow and multiply those extracted from destroyed embryos in the lab was developed in 1998. On the other hand, treatments using stem cells from non-embryonic bone marrow have been performed for over 35 years.
The Catholic Church vigorously supports research using adult stem cells, but opposes destroying human embryos—and creating them just to destroy them—in order to harvest and multiply their stem cells in the laboratory.
The U.S. Senate has approved three stem cell-related bills in July. H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, would allow full federal funding for stem cell research on human embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics that were not implanted in women and are now slated for disposal. The church opposes this bill, and President Bush has indicated he’ll veto it when it comes to his desk.
The church supports the two other bills, one of which is the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act, S. 3504, which amends current federal law against abuses in the area of fetal tissue research and would prevent the use of human fetal tissue (such as fetal stem cells) obtained by growing human embryos in a human or animal uterus in order to provide such tissue. Most animal studies cited in support of so-called therapeutic cloning have required placing cloned animal embryos in a womb and growing them to the fetal stage to obtain usable stem cells, stated Cardinal William Keeler, chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a press release.
The church also supports S. 2745, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, which would fund efforts to derive and study stem cells already identified which have the capabilities of embryonic stem cells but which are not obtained by destroying human embryos.
Other members of the commission include Kuang-Yueh Chiang, M.D., Ph.D., clinical associate professor and director of the Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; Rep. Sharon Cooper, state representative for the 41st district of Georgia and chair of the Health & Human Services Committee; Henry Edmondson III, Ph.D., professor of political science and public administration at Georgia College and State University; Alan Einstein, M.D., founder, chief executive officer and president of Cord Blood Solutions, LLC, who also practices internal medicine at the Alpharetta Medical Associates, P.C.; David Charles Hess, M.D., chairman of the Department of Neurology at the Medical College of Georgia, clinical co-director of the Institute of Neuroscience and chief of neurology service at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta; Edward Klein III, who had been practicing law in Atlanta and Marietta for 30 years and served in the Georgia House of Representatives for six years; Thomas Lawley, M.D., dean of the Emory University School of Medicine; Robert McNally, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Cell Dynamics LLC, co-founder and CEO of Cell Design and a partner of NuTek BioMedical, LLC; Timothy Neja, senior director of laboratory operations at CryoLife, Inc.; Steven Stice, M.S., Ph.D., director of Regenerative Bioscience Center at the University of Georgia and chief scientific officer at Aruna Biomedical, Inc. and former vice-president of stem cell research for BresaGen., Inc.; Sen. Shafer, who represents portions of Fulton and Gwinnett counties in the Georgia State Senate and is chairman of the Regulated Industries and Public Utilities Committee and former chairman of the Science and Technology Committee; and Robert Yu, Med.Sc.D., Ph.D., director of the Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics and the Institute of Neuroscience at the Medical College of Georgia.