3.08.2009

brooke ellison, barack obama, stem cells and the future of medical science

Tomorrow, President Obama will put into effect one of the most important improvements his administration will make: he will lift the Bush-era ban on federal funding for stem cell research.

Since 2001, the US government has banned the use of federal funds for stem cell research. Congress voted to relax the restrictions in 2006, but the Resident scored points with the fetus lovers with a veto.

Since then, some US research has continued, paid for by private foundations or state-funded initiatives. But without federal funding and coordination, researchers are working with one hand tied behind their backs. Tomorrow Obama will restore some sanity to the situation. The move has strong bipartisan support in Congress. Only reactionaries like the Vatican and the fetus lovers oppose it.

Stem cell research is legal in Canada and has been ongoing. But the Conservatives have slashed funding for science, and I don't know how that affects this work.

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I recently wrote a story that touches on this issue, another update about Brooke Ellison, who I've written about several times. Brooke is now spearheading The Brooke Ellison Project, a public education campaign to make stem cell research a national priority in the US.

Writing this story, I learned a bit about stem cell research - mostly how little I knew, and how much company I had in that ignorance. The science folks reading this may be an exception, but it seems that even most intelligent, well-informed people don't know even the basic facts about stem cell science. (If wmtc readers are an exception to that, all the better!)

Here's what I learned.

Stem cells are undifferentiated – unspecialized – cells that can be developed into any type of human cell. With the right technology, and enough undifferentiated cells, a scientist can turn them into specific types of human cells. Then a doctor would replace malfunctioning cells with new, healthy ones.

For example, in a person with diabetes, only one type of cell malfunctions – the pancreatic beta cell, which is responsible for the production of insulin. Doctors would take a stem cell and instruct it to become a healthy pancreatic beta cell. That new beta cell would then be transplanted into the diabetic, along with immunosuppressants.

The new cells would replicate, and each of them would be healthy – formerly missing – pancreatic beta cells. Soon the patient would be free of the daily blood checks, the insulin injections – and the life-threatening illness – that dominates so much of her life.

Stem cell research holds enormous promise for a list of conditions that affect the lives of millions of people: diabetes, Alzheimer's, ALS, Parkinson's, autism, spinal cord injury. In January 2009, a private biotech company announced plans to launch the world's first study of an applied treatment based on stem cell research: treatment for SCI. Testing will begin on recently injured paraplegics as early as this summer.

Scientists believe stem cell science has the potential to revolutionize medicine on the order of antibiotics or vaccinations. Imagine it.

The controversy - a fictional, manufactured controversy - focuses on where the initial stem cells come from.

Stem cells can be derived from several different sources – bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, or fertilized eggs less than one week into development, called blastocytes. The blastocyte cells are considered the most promising, as they have an endless capacity for replication, and can be transformed into any type of human cell.

Since the science is often referred to as "embryonic stem cell research," many people assume the stem cells come from embryos. Fetus lovers have raised the spectre of women becoming pregnant with the express purpose of terminating pregnancies from which stem cells could be harvested, coerced abortions and profit-driven abortions-for-stem-cells schemes.

Even without that ghoulish, fictional component, many people mistakenly believe that stem cells are harvested from human embryos that would otherwise have developed. They imagine that stem cell bioengineering involves an ethical trade-off: destroying one life in order to improve another.

It's simply not true.

In reality, stem cells are taken from unused embryos from in-vitro fertilization clinics. If they are not used for stem cells, the embryos are discarded. Thrown in the trash. Wasted.

In other words, stem cell research has nothing to do with abortion.

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Brooke Ellison worked with the Obama team to craft a comprehensive stem cell research policy. Now she wants to travel the country showing the movie "Hope Deferred," a documentary made for the Project, stimulating discussion, answering questions and educating the public about the promise of stem cell research. The Project is modelled after Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth".

Brooke is the living embodiment of a truth that guides my life: the personal is political. A ventilator-using quadriplegic, she seeks to use her personal circumstances to show the world what is possible, and to work to improve the lives of others, not by charity, but by identifying what's broken and trying to fix it.

My story on the Brooke Ellison Project will appear in New Mobility this spring, and I'll try to use it to write about the Project for a mainstream US women's magazine.

To see a clip of "Hope Deferred," learn more about the The Brooke Ellison Project, donate or inquire about a speaking engagement, go here: The Brooke Ellison Project.

1 comment:

James said...

Chris Mooney covers the whole stem cell controversy quite well in his book, The Republican War on Science.