Personal Health

Obama Gets Stem Cell Research Right

We can finally dream of incurable diseases being cured. Welcome, at last, to the 21st century.
In the beginning there is the stem cell; it is the origin of an organism's life. It is a single cell that can give rise to progeny that differentiate into any of the specialized cells of embryonic or adult tissues.
- Stewart Sell, M.D., Senior Scientist, Ordway Research Institute

The Obama administration won its way through to passage of the economic stimulus package, and President Obama will sign the thing on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he's going to Phoenix to kick off a big national push for fixing the foreclosure crisis. There is still a war going on in Afghanistan, and there is still a war going on in Iraq. The White House has wisely decided to stay away from the question of Karl Rove's subpoena and the limits of Bush-era executive privilege claims; the issue is one of separation of powers, and therefore must be handled by the legislative and judicial branches, so the executive branch doesn't wind up getting to determine the limits of its own power.

So there's a lot of galactically heavy stuff going on right now, with more sure to come.

But there's also this, from The Associated Press on Sunday afternoon:

President Barack Obama will soon issue an executive order lifting an eight-year ban on embryonic stem cell research imposed by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, a senior adviser said on Sunday. "We're going to be doing something on that soon, I think. The president is considering that right now," Obama adviser David Axelrod said on "Fox News Sunday."
In 2001, Bush limited federal funding for stem cell research only to human embryonic stem cell lines that already existed. It was a gesture to his conservative Christian supporters who regard embryonic stem cell research as destroying potential life, because the cells must be extracted from human embryos. Embryonic stem cells are the most basic human cells which can develop into any type of cell in the body.
Scientists believe the research could eventually produce cures for a variety of diseases, including Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injuries. Obama vowed to reverse Bush's ban during his presidential campaign, and in his inaugural address last month promised to return science to its proper place in the United States.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes cells this way:

Stem cells have two important characteristics that distinguish them from other types of cells. First, they are unspecialized cells that renew themselves for long periods through cell division. The second is that under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become cells with special functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, stem cells in developing tissues give rise to the multiple specialized cell types that make up the heart, lung, skin and other tissues. In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle and brain, discrete populations of adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury or disease.

The CDC estimated in 2008 that 24 million Americans suffered from diabetes, 5.7 million of them currently undiagnosed. Fifty-seven million more Americans are estimated to have pre-diabetes. The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion estimates one in three Americans born after 2000 will develop diabetes sometime within their lifetime. Complications from diabetes include a doubled risk of cardiovascular disease, renal failure, retinal damage and blindness, various kinds of nerve damage and poor wound healing that can lead to gangrene and potentially to amputation. Diabetes is the leading cause of adult blindness in non-elderly persons and the leading cause of non-traumatic amputation in adults. Diabetes is also the main illness requiring renal dialysis in the United States.

Parkinson's disease affects half a million Americans, with 50,000 new cases reported every year. The four primary symptoms are tremor or trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk, slowness of movement and/or impaired balance and coordination. Patients can have difficulty walking, talking or doing other simple tasks. This chronic disease persists over a long period and is progressive, meaning symptoms grow worse over time. Other symptoms accompanying Parkinson's disease include depression or other emotional changes, difficulty swallowing and chewing, blurred or slurring speech, urinary problems or constipation, and sleep problems.

Multiple sclerosis affects approximately 400,000 Americans, with roughly 10,000 new cases diagnosed every year. MS patients suffer from a wide variety of neurological symptoms, including changed sensations, weakness of muscles, spasms, difficulty with moving, coordination and balance, problems in speech, swallowing, vision, fatigue, acute and/or chronic pain, and bladder and bowel control difficulties. Mental and emotional impairment and depression are also common. Multiple sclerosis relapses or attacks are unpredictable, and can occur without warning or obvious inciting factors.

ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, affects as many as 30,000 Americans. Patients with ALS will eventually not be able to stand, walk or use their hands and arms. Difficulty swallowing and chewing impair the patient's ability to eat normally and increase the risk of choking. ALS usually does not affect the mental faculties, so patients are vividly aware of their loss of function and can become anxious and depressed. As the diaphragm and intercostal muscles weaken, breathing difficulties increase. ALS patients must eventually decide whether to have a tracheostomy and long-term mechanical ventilation. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure or pneumonia, not the disease itself.

Approximately 5.3 million Americans suffer from some form of brain injury. Cancer is responsible for 25 percent of all deaths in America. Half of all men and one-third of all women in America will develop cancer during their lifetimes. More than half a million Americans suffer from blindness. Hundreds of millions of people in every nation on Earth suffer from all these conditions.

Stem cell research has great potential to treat, or even cure, many of these maladies, and many more besides. The story behind why America has not pursued stem cell research with the level of vigor the possibilities would seem to demand is long and politically convoluted, but basically boils down to this: a small but vocal minority in the country believe stem cell research is baby butchery akin to legalized abortion, and for the last eight years a president who agreed, or simply didn't want to tick that small minority off, was in office. A lot of other politicians who should have known better heard words like "snowflake babies" and "abortion" and ran like rabbits, and thus America's pursuit of this astonishing medical breakthrough has been stuck in the mud.

Not for much longer.

Millions of Americans and hundreds of millions more worldwide who have been afflicted by these terrible maladies can actually begin to imagine what once seemed impossible: getting well. They can dream of the incurable becoming cured. They can hope.

Welcome, at last, to the 21st century.

William Rivers Pitt is the author of "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know" and "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence."
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