Monday, March 9, 2009

Stem Cells 101 and Stem Cells in Science Fiction

The news is everywhere, President Barack Obama overturned today President George W. Bush's restrictions "that limited federal tax dollars for embryonic stem cell research," per CNN and other sources.

CNN also reports that in 2001, Bush signed an order "that barred the National Institutes of Health from funding research on embryonic stem cells beyond using 60 cell lines that existed at that time." A blogger at Feministe is in awe, writing, "All of this is incredibly excellent news, and I cannot possibly express how very happy I am about the development."

Watching this story unfold, I didn't expect this rush of emotion, but I wept seeing the video below of Obama announcing that he's repealing Bush's order. At some time in the future, I will need kidney and stem cell research offers hope beyond hoping I find a matching donor and get approved for transplant.

I remember while I was going through domestic violence counseling, the counselor and I discussed my being ill, needing a kidney for reasons the doctor's don't understand, and I told her that I was realistic about the news I'd received at age 43, that by age 53 I'd need a kidney. I said that I'd accepted that it was unlikely I'd get one because most people don't, and so, I wanted to live my life like I'd never be approved as a recipient.

She looked me in the eye and said, "I don't want to hear you talk like that. Medical science is making progress in all areas and for all you know by the time you need a kidney they'll be growing them in a lab."

Her words comforted me six years ago, and sometimes I try to look at life that way: What if I make it? What if I have another 40 years ahead of me and not another 5-10? I'm 49 now and my parents lived into their 80s. My dad's still living, 88.

It's possible that regenerative medicine and the promise of stem cells won't help me. Even Obama said the promise of stem cell research should not be overstated, and yet I'm hopeful today, recalling that research indicates adult stem cells hold promise for people with kidney failure, and it's possible embryonic stem cell research may hold more.

For some reason, this news also reminds me that if I continue to work at improving my health, I may live longer and who knows, I could be one of the lucky ones who gets a kidney via old-fashioned transplant and and has the money to pay for associated medical services. Whether I personally benefit from stem cell research, I feel good about the president opening the door for more funding and research.

My mother's also on my mind today. Before I lost her to death via sepsis contracted in the hospital last year, I'd already mourned her as she was not the woman I knew. She had Alzheimer's, one of the diseases that may be cured through stem cell research.

Obama acknowledged that some Americans are opposed to stem cell research and said we must respect their opinions, however, after much consideration lifting the Bush ban was the right decision. He said we must make medical science decisions based on science fact not on ideology. As usual he told a story to put a face on an issue, this time invoking the late Christopher and Dana Reeve, champions of stem cell research. He concluded his speech about lifting the ban by thanking those who've worked with him across party lines.

The Eleventh Hour and its Stem Cell Storyline

Despite hearing over the last decade of advances in stem cell research and later how it could benefit me personally, I didn't research the topic. It seemed an overwhelming task to learn anything about stem cells. But about a month ago, while watching the CBS drama Eleventh Hour one Thursday night, I started wondering about the promise of stem cell research. That evening's show a corporation stealing cord blood form families who'd stored their child's umbilical cord blood in case the stem cells in the blood were needed later to cure them or help stop the progression of an illness.

Here's a video clip from the show about stolen stem cells, that wealthy people wanted because they believed stem cells would restore youth. That's not true; there's no evidence that stem cells are the fountain of youth, but some of the other science behind Episode 12, Season One of Eleventh Hour was based in fact.

Eleventh Hour focuses on the scientific investigation of the fictitious "Dr. Jacob Hood, a brilliant biophysicist and special science advisor to the government, as he investigates scientific crises and oddities." A blog at Discover Magazine examines the science behind the show, and in the post "The Cord Blood Panacea," tackled Episode 12, Season One specifically:
Cord blood is the stem-cell rich blood that can be extracted from an infants’ umbilical cord shortly after birth. The blood holds the makings of full grown blood cells, and as such can be useful in helping to treat certain blood-born diseases and as a replacement for damaged bone marrow in certain treatments for cancer. Cord blood was first shown to be useful in 1988 when it helped replace damaged blood and marrow in apes. To provide a supply for research, the National Cord Blood Program was founded in New york in 1996. Even though some 6,000 cord-blood transplants have taken place between then and 2005, people receiving treatment with cord blood are considered human subjects of research and the treatment has to be certified by the appropriate boards. The public registry accepts cord-blood from anyone and will give it to anyone who needs it.

On the other side are the private blood banks, of which there are several. These companies process and hold cord blood for the donor’s or the donor family’s future need. They charge in the neighborhood of $1,500 or $2,000 for collection and then $125 or so annually for storage. The firms market their services to parents both as insurance against many forms of cancer and because, as they say, the future of stem cells is bright. ... (continue reading at DM)
As you may gather, cord blood stem cells, the stem cells used in the show, and embryonic stem cells, the stem cells related to President Obama's order today, are not the same.
Embryonic stem cells are cultured in a Petri dish using the spare fertilized eggs of in vitro fertilization (IVF). These eggs are donated with the informed consent of the donors. Many moral and ethical questions arise in embryonic stem cell research; this is especially true of fetal stem cell research, the use of older embryos. The issue lies in scientists making their own embryos from scratch for use in stem cell research. (
Another site also looks at the science behind the show Eleventh Hour. Eleventh Hour Facts had a live blog for Episode 12 by Michael Gilkey from the National Center for Regenerative Medicine.

Stem Cell Research 101:

You can find a variety of resources with factual information about all kinds of stem cells online. KUMC has a site about the basics:
Early human stem cells are thought to be an important source of potentially all types of clinically relevant cells that could become replacement tissue (e.g., organs) in the future or be used to treat and prevent disease. (Stem Cell Resarch 101 at KU)
And more on the promise of stem cell research from the same site:
It is expected that early human stem cells could be used to create an unlimited supply of cells, tissues, or even organs that could be transplanted to restore function lost to disease and injury. While early stem cell research in humans is still in its infancy and specific treatments have not yet been developed, many experts expect treatments will be possible in the future for the following types of illnesses, injuries, and diseases:

  • Type 1 Diabetes in children
  • Nervous system diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and spinal cord injuries
  • Primary immunodeficiency disease
  • Diseases of bone and cartilage
  • Cancer.
(Promise of Stem Cell Research)
A while back I read a post by a BlogHer CE that also covered some basics and addressed misinformation on the topic of stem cell research. Catherine Morgan's post explains that stem cell research has nothing to do with abortion, and it includes the video below on regenerative medicine. If you don't have time to do a lot of reading, the video may be helpful. Warning, it reminds me of an junior high biology video, but for a topic this complex, it may offer the kind of simplicity needed.

Furthermore, with its news story about the Obama repeal of Bush's order, CNN has a fact sheet on the topic. Click here. And years ago, Time Magazine covered the "False Controversy of Stem Cells":
"Embryonic stem-cell studies are controversial because they involve the destruction of human embryos," the New York Times explained in a May 6 article reporting on the shifting politics of stem-cell research. (For example, Nancy Reagan, whose husband has Alzheimer's, has gone public with her opposition to the Bush restrictions.) But that can't be right. Fertility clinics destroy far more human embryos than stem-cell research ever would, yet they are not controversial. Death or deep freeze is the fate of any embryo spared by the Bush policy from the indignity of contributing to medical progress.

Stamping some issue as controversial can be a substitute for thinking it through. (Time)
In conclusion, here's a CNN video about the stem cell controversy. Some people oppose embryonic stem cell research, as covered in the 2004 Time Magazine article, because they feel it will result in harvesting and destroying human embryos. So, it's become part of the pro-life debate as well as the cloning debate. When arguing against embryonic stem cell research, cord stem cells are presented as a cure all, but it's my understanding that cord blood stem cells have some limitations that embryonic stem cells do not have.

"Embryonic stem cells are considered the most powerful kinds of stem cells, as they have the potential to give rise to any type of tissue," per an MSNBC article.


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Blue State Cowgirl said...

Great post, especially as you take a topic that is much too often discussed "philosophically" without a thought to the real human stories behind it. When I went through IVF (unsuccessfully, alas), I always produced, and the doctor fertilized, more eggs than were ever going to be implanted. (Unless you go to Octo-Mom's doctor, your physician will be very careful how many he implants.) The choice with the rest was always: destroy them or donate them to science. There was no hesitation. Let them do someone some good by becoming a part of credentialled research. I can't believe people are debating about "saving" these four celled "lives".