Misconceptions & The State of Things

Since this is a blog about someone who will be receiving stem cell treatment it is only fair and logical to take some time to talk about some of the facts and misconceptions involving stem cells. I will do my best not to turn them into a rant, but as I'm sure the reader can imagine, you would rant too if there was a potential viable treatment for you or someone you love and the things standing in its way were politics, big business and ignorance. However, like I said, I'll do my best.

To begin we will see what the website Americans For Cures has to say...
"Stem cell research is perhaps the most exciting medical technology of the 21st Century. Stem cells hold the promise of treatments and cures for more than 70 major diseases and conditions that affect millions of people, including diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS), spinal cord injuries, blindness, and HIV/AIDS.

Stem Cells are the Body's Basic Building Blocks

  • Stem cells have two unique qualities: they can copy themselves for an unlimited period of time and they can grow into all of the body's different cell types
  • When a stem cell copies itself, each of the two new cells can either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell such as a muscle cell, a blood cell, or a brain cell.
  • Some stem cells grow into organs, bones and tissues of the body, but other stem cells work in its immune and repair systems. Called "adult" stem cells, they create replacement cells for those that are lost because of injury, disease or the normal wear and tear of aging.
  • Adult stem cells can be used for research and treatment, but most researchers believe that "embryonic" stem cells have much more potential to study, treat and cure diseases.
  • Not all stem cells are alike.
    • Adult stem cells are called "multipotent." This means they can turn into several different kinds of cells within the same basic cell type. For example, adult stem cells found in bone marrow can turn into all of the different types of cells found in blood. Research on adult stem cells has been funded for over 40 years and many successful therapies have been developed.
    • Embryonic stem cells are called "pluripotent." This means they can turn into all of the body's cell types except egg and sperm cells. Embryonic stem cells were first discovered in 1998 and research on them has not yet been well funded. Scientists believe that the potential of embryonic stem cells is even greater than adult stem cells.
  • Embryonic stem cells are blank, unspecialized cells found in the interior of a blastocyst. A blastocyst is a mass of 150 or so cells that is smaller than a period at the end of this sentence. It develops approximately 5-14 days after an egg is fertilized.
  • Scientists have been able to get stem cells to grow into complex cells with special functions, like the cells of the pancreas that produce insulin or heart muscle cells.
  • A research process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), sometimes referred to as "therapeutic cloning", allows scientists to produce embryonic stem cells without using sperm to fertilize an egg. In this process, there is no implantation in a uterus and therefore no pregnancy.
  • Using new tools like somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), scientists hope to make cell lines that are specific to a patient and/or a disease. This will help them study diseases in a powerful new way and help them discover better treatments and cures.

Stem Cell Research is Developing Breakthrough Cures & Offering New Hope

  • Life-saving stem cell treatments are already successful and in widespread use for some diseases. For example, bone marrow transplants use stem cells to treat leukemia.
  • Stem cell research could lead to treatments that save millions of lives and improve the quality-of-life for millions more.
  • Scientists are working on a wide range of stem cell-based therapies. They have created "tissue patches" for burn victims. They have grown islet cells that produce insulin to treat diabetes and healthy brain cells to ease the symptoms of disorders like Parkinson's disease. They have genetically changed cells and then used them to deliver healing or protective agents to injured or diseased areas of the body."
The information here is true, however for the purpose of understanding the controversy over stem cells we need to understand where the conflict arose. We must start by looking at the science of stem cells. Yes, adult multipotent stem cells have been funded and researched for over 40 years, but because of the limits of technology and doctors' concerns over the "limitations" of adult cells themselves much of the hope has been placed in embryonic research. This supposed limitation in layman's terms works like this- As the body grows into adulthood our stem cells become limited in their ability to "turn" into other cells for regeneration. Embryonic cells, because they develop into a whole body have the ability to grow into all kinds of cells the body may need. Medical research has poured billions of dollars all over the world into both adult and embryonic research, but the hope has been placed largely in embryonic cells causing many a brilliant scientist to miss the forest for the trees and not see the value in adult stem cells. I'll elaborate on this later, but it will suffice to say the opportunities could have been under their noses all along.

In the United States the 2 largest contributing factors to the stem cell controversy are fundamentalist disinformation and the pharmaceutical lobby in Washington D.C. When embryonic stem cells were discovered in 1998 it created an uproar in the conservative right-wing community. I won't postulate as to at what point the embryo becomes a soul, but those that feel it is the moment of conception felt that by extracting stem cells from the embryo, which essentially kills it, researchers were committing abortion en masse. They neglected to inform their constituents that the embryos were those submitted by families who had invitro fertilization done and had already gotten pregnant. They also forgot to mention that invitro can create as many as 40-50 embryos at one fertilization. Not only that, but those embryos that are not used get stuck on a laboratory refrigerator shelf and die after three years if unused anyway! Do you know where they go? The trash. It's a sobering thought when you think about Christopher Reeves' potential prevention of his untimely death going up in smoke at City General Hospital's incinerator. The final blow was when President George W. Bush vetoed the government funding of stem cell research twice in his terms in office putting us 8-10 years behind the rest of the world in regenerative medicine. For this, I don't hold anyone of any religious rights lobby solely responsible. The pharmaceutical companies didn't want to lose long-term care dollars to a cure, nor did they want to lose the money they had sunk into medicines that would be rendered obsolete by a viable outpatient-based treatment. They didn't have to push too hard though, that damage had already been done, the truth buried under a mountain of disinformation spread by those accusing science of "playing God". The saddest fact in all of this is that more than five years ago doctors announced publicly that they now could extract pluripotent embryonic stem cells from an embryo without killing it. The worst arguments are those fought over nothing at all.

Strangely, the research with embryonic cells has turned up not at promising as previously hoped. Rapid growth, tumors and antibodies attacking the area to be repaired are just a few of the issues that have slowed down progress. Meanwhile the progress with adult stem cells, specifically treatments being conducted overseas have been giving doctors new hope. With advances in technology the limitations of multipotent cells are becoming less and less. In Israel right now experiments are being done that will allow blood to be drawn and converted to stem cells. The ramifications of this kind of simplicity are staggering. Imagine a child diagnosed by the family pediatrician with cystic fibrosis. Instead of a diagnosis filled with fear and anxiety the physician takes a blood sample, sends it to the lab and in two days a simple out-patient procedure has the child breathing naturally with hope of long life. What if the young athlete who breaks his spine on the football field has only to undergo a few simple surgeries and an injection of cells from his own bone marrow and return to life as usual? These are very real possibilities that are on the horizon. This is why opening clinical trials and tests in this country is so vitally important. If we do not, insurance companies will not cover treatments and American patients will be forced to travel overseas. While not a bad thing in and of itself, but why should that money A. leave the country and B. how could the most powerful country in the world deny its citizens a potential cure?

Think of it this way... can you imagine the boost to the economy if long-term medicaid and medicare dollars were rendered unnecessary? What about the work force who could return to work and start new businesses? Longevity and longer life span means more productivity! How about lower insurance premiums? I'm not claiming that stem cells are the answer to everything, but what would this country be like if progressive, real medical research was put back in the hands of doctors who are passionate about eradicating disease instead of independent, pharmaceutical company-backed scientists with promised stock options and bonuses if they can come up with the next Viagra. Where are the Jonas Salks and Alexander Flemings of the 21st Century? We need to get real.

Ok... I promised I wouldn't rant. I hope the reader will research and draw their own conclusions. I don't really care if you disagree, I just hope people will begin thinking for themselves and encourage the sharing of ideas. In order to think outside the box we must peek over the edge. Talk to your doctors, your professors, your personal trainers and physical therapists. Find out where your congressmen and senators stand on these issues. It may be you or someone you love one day whose life could be saved. There are many things in this world that need to change and we may not get there overnight, but if we open ourselves first to knowledge little by little we can see real results.