Oh Brother, More Stuff on Stem Cells

[It’s finally here – the diabetes and stem cells primer from Jerry Nora that I promised. 🙂 For those reading my blog for the first time, I decided I ought to explain who Jerry Nora is. Aside from being a good friend, he’s also a MD/PhD student with a knack for bioethics who is and occasional guest poster here. – Funky]

Okay, let’s talk about diabetes mellitus (which are diabetic conditions resulting from glucose concentration dysregulation in the blood) and stem cells.

First, about diabetes mellitus: there are two types. Type I, or insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, generally occurs early in life and involves an autoimmune destruction of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Type II is much more common and tends to occur in adults; this is a more complicated disease in that one still produces insulin, but the body does not respond to insulin as it should. Diet and obesity are big factors in Type II DM; treatment involves weight loss and varying drugs to increase insulin sensitivity and boost insulin production. Cholesterol lowering medication comes in handy as well.

From the above guerilla introduction, one should see that in Type I diabetes, we can use stems cells to replace insulin producing cells in the pancreas; there is no guarantee that the immune system won’t just destroy the cells again, but it can give people a better lease on life for some time. In Type II diabetes, there is no obvious target for stem cell therapy that I know of.

So now let’s look at Type I diabetes. If we are to use stem cells to treat it, we have two choices: embryonic, and adult. For a good summary of how these stem cells compare, check out MedLinePlus, which is an excellent resource on biomedical issues. It isn’t exactly right-wing propaganda, either..

The current state of the art would support adult stem cells, even if one has no particular qualms about breaking down microscopic human organisms for their parts. The embryonic research lobby fights hard by playing on people’s subjective feelings of pity, and our natural (and ordinarily laudable) desire to not obstruct ill people from getting help. Recently a young Type I diabetic named Tessa Wick joined the likes of Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox in fighting for embryonic research.

Tessa bet on the wrong horse. You see, even pro-embyronic publications like the Washington Post have woken up to the fact that embryonic research has no immediate promise for diseases like Alzheimer’s. In the meantime, we’re on the cusp of adult stem cells delivering the goods for diabetics like Tessa. Adult stem cells are simpler. Embryonic stem cells are balky to handle, and the fact that they are less differentiated means that they can accidentally become that many more unwanted cell types. Also, we can give Tessa adult stem cells from her own marrow, thus bypassing tissue rejection issues. Oh sure, we could also perhaps create a clone of Tessa from her skin, but think of how many extra steps that would take. My brief training in engineering imparted to me the importance of KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

You’d think from the biotech lobby that in denying embryonic research and cloning we’re doing something akin to yanking a flotation device away from the flailing arms of a drowning man, that we were giving them a death sentence. This emotional manipulation was long recognized by pro-lifers, but that Washington Post article is striking, given the source. Since that article, though, the party line in favor of embryonic research amongst the media continued, perhaps even in nominally unbiased wire services.

I should emphasize that I empathize with Tessa, who has a very scary disease and naturally wants to get well. My argument is with the people who manipulate our feelings and Tessa’s, and who blacken science by distorting its results and turning it towards the degradation of humans. My argument is not with patients like Tessa. I hope that Brother and other celebrities will use their gifts and bully pulpit to promote the branches of research that are much more likely to help Tessa in the near future, that are so much simpler than cloning and embryonic manipulation, and are no more ethically problematic than a blood or bone marrow transplant.

7 thoughts on “Oh Brother, More Stuff on Stem Cells

  1. Jerry Nora

    Hi h2. I’m glad that you liked the primer.

    I want to emphasize that I too consider embryonic research to be utterly wrong. However, many people (including myself in other venues and on this blog)have hammered this home. The fact is, though, is that people fall into an “ends justify the means” mindset with a bunch of very ill people saying that the need embryonic research. Since embryos don’t write many memoirs or vote, it is easy to ignore these humans’ rights.

    I like to short-circuit these argumenta ad misericordiam (arguments towards mercy) by showing that embryonic research has a lot of smoke and mirrors behind it. People think with their hearts often more than their heads, alas.

    This has a parallel to slavery. William Wilberforce helped turn the tide against slavery in England by appealing to self-interest in showing that slavery is counterproductive. Ideally, more principled reasons for respecting the life and freedom of humans should suffice, but we should also try to respect where people are coming from if we seek to change their minds and their hearts.

    Pro-lifers like Feminists for Life or the Caring Foundation are taking a page from Wilberforce by showing just how damaging abortion is to women, and it is has some marked success.

    BTW, the University of Pittsburgh, I seem to recall, has some very promising work on beta-cell replacement for Type I diabetics. I’ll keep my eyes peeled and post any relevant information that I may see, if you want.

  2. h2

    If you want someone who’s truly sympathetic to Tessa (from Jerry’s mini-primer on stem cells), you need look no further than me. As an insulin dependent diabetic, I share much of her perspective.

    Still, that doesn’t justify the idea of harvesting embryos to serve our healthcare needs. Logic like Jerry’s may be helpful in steering some people away from false hope and the wrongheaded steps that follow. In so doing, perhaps we can do away with that misconception, but hopefully we can remember also that the misuse of embryonic stem cells would still be wrong even if it were the most effective means to an end.

    Appreciate the good info.

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