With a science-hostile Congress moving into Washington next month, now – before reactionary attempts to turn back the nascent clock – is a good time to revisit the benefits of stem cell research.
By way of a quick review, work here in the United States is still in a relatively embryonic stage, so to speak, as it was only in March 2009 that President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13505 – “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells.” The EO revoked one signed by President George W. Bush in 2007, as well as Presidential statement in 2001 that limited federal funding of research involving human embryonic stem cells. Obama’s order instructed the Director of NIH to “develop guidelines for the support and conduct of responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law.”
It’s that last bit about the law where the new Congress has the ability to stop and reverse forward motion. Here’s a primer on the progress and opportunities we stand to lose if backward thinkers have their way:
1. Cures for common diseases
Topping the list is the role that stem cell research and regenerative medicine might – most researchers, in fact, say will likely – play in developing cures for disease that might otherwise be incurable. (Note that: otherwise incurable.) Here’s a short list:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Heart Diseases
Know anyone suffering from something on this list? Most people do. And how about this recent headline from the peer-reviewed journal Blood, a publication of the American Society of Hematology: “Evidence for the cure of HIV infection by CCR5 32/32 stem cell transplantation.” Know what that means? Yeah. The AFP reported this just yesterday: “A US cancer patient who received a stem cell transplant has been cured of HIV.” Stay tuned on this one.
2. Reversing birth defects
Studies are showing that by injecting stem cells directly into the brain, neural birth defects may be reversible. This research into treating birth defects is pretty new, but teams have been developing therapies for rodents with real or simulated birth defects in the brain, says MIT’s Technology Review. “Even though most of the transplanted cells did not survive, they induced the brain’s own cells to carry out extensive repairs.”
3. Repairing stroke damage
Science Daily reports that according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, neural cells from human embryonic stem cells “helped repair stroke-related damage in the brains of rats and led to improvements in their physical abilities after a stroke.” This is big news. “The great thing about these cells is that they are available in unlimited supply and are very versatile,” said a senior scientist on the project. “The neural cells the group generated grew indefinitely in the lab and could be an ongoing source of cells for treating stroke or other injuries.”
4. Dealing with spinal cord injuries
Just this fall, a patient suffering from a spinal cord injury was injected with two million human embryonic stem cells. “The hope,” says CBS News Healthwatch, is that “one day this treatment may help the paralyzed walk again.” The procedure took place at the Shepherd Center spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation facility in Atlanta. The idea is that the cells will become specialized nerve cells which can then be injected directly into the injured area of the spinal cord. If the treatment works, the progenitor cells will produce new oligodendrocytes (cells that produce myelin, which allows impulses to move along nerves) in the injured area of the patient’s spine, allowing for new movement.
5. Organ repair and replacement
Growing whole organs and critical tissue is a seemingly sci-fi scenario that’s a lot closer than we think – with the help of stem cell research. This new technology could make possible “a virtually inexhaustible supply of organ replacements, thereby doing away with the need to wait for organ donors and removing the risk of rejection.” Entire hearts, lungs, etc., aside, tissue generation has an entire host of curative possibilities.
6. Burn victim relief
Here’s an area where there’s already been a significant payoff as cultivated stem cells are today being used to generate skin grafts. Also, patients whose eyes have been damaged in chemical accidents have had their sight restored using their own stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research plays a significant role helping scientists understand and put to use adult stem cells, as well.
7. Developing new drugs
New drugs can be tested on stem cells to test safety before testing on humans, or even animals, for that matter. In fact, as CNN reports, some researchers are saying embryonic stem cells could end animal testing altogether. Says one expert, “It could save a lot of time and effort of taking the wrong drugs through, or it may allow drugs through which are lost at an early stage, because they affect the animal cells but don’t have an effect on human cells.”
8. (If the science isn’t enough) It’s the economy, stupid
States that support stem cell research have seen significant corporate investment and job creation. Estimates in California, for example, are that $1 billion in investment in stem cell research is not unreasonable. The commercial potential is overwhelming, according those who are in the business.
9. It’s the economy, stupid II
Oh, and don’t we have a little problem with healthcare expenditures in this country? Don’t most experts believe that the amount of money we’re paying out as a society for the sick and dying is going to bankrupt us if action is not taken? How about more healthy people? Seems like something we should be looking into.
10. (If the economics isn’t enough) It’s just the right thing to do
Stem cell research is inherently innovative and efficient, and a practical and a conscious demonstration of caring for those who are sick. These people are not only taxing the system, but they are taxing themselves and their families with trauma and anguish. Scientific progress and human quality of life are inexorably linked in our times and acting to improve and care for the entire system, the whole connected fabric of our existence, is a moral imperative. Consider that more than 100 million Americans suffer from ailments and diseases that may be cured with embryonic stem cell therapy. Alleviating human suffering. It’s the right thing to do.