A Cure for Cancer -- Denied by Politics

10/20/2010 10:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I do not believe even the most hardened conservative goes to bed at night being glad he or she stopped chronic disease from being cured.

But if they surrender to an anti-science ideology, it will have exactly the same effect.

Consider cancer: which killed my mother at age 52, or leukemia, which took my sister Patty.

I was across the country from my sister when she was dying. I knew she had leukemia, and I should have been there with her. But I wasn't, and I blame myself for it to this day.

At first, I did not really understand what leukemia was. I was in the Army when she got it, coming home one day from work with a bruise on her arm she could not explain.

The doctor checked her blood several times, and then told her the worst news a physician can give.

Afterward, Patty spoke her to her boyfriend, Nye Morton, and told him she had leukemia, and that it was going to be bad at the end. She wanted them to break up, she told him, so he could remember her as she was now.

But he refused. To his ever-lasting credit, Nye told her, if she was going to die, he wanted to spend every possible minute with her; they should get married.

I was at the wedding, and my sister was so beautiful. So beautiful.

And then the disease took over.

I saw her once more, when I was home on leave from the Army. She was in her room. I knocked on her door, and asked if I could come in. She hesitated, saying the leukemia had taken her hair, and the wig was at the cleaner's, she did not want me to freak out. I said the right things, and came in, and hugged her, making my face not change.

After mustering out from the military, I was on the East Coast in Pennsylvania, trying to become a championship Olympic-style weightlifter at a place called the York Barbell Club.

Things were not going well; there was no work to pay the bills while I lifted weights. I made a few bucks scrubbing rust off metal at a reclamation plant, but that ended when the snow got deep. I got a job at a new department store--but that would not begin until Spring.

Every day I would go to the employment bureau. The room was unheated, and it was East Coast Winter. We sat and watched our breaths rise, waiting for a day's work to come in, and maybe it did and maybe it didn't.

One week I made $12, and the rent was eighteen. Sometimes I slept in my twenty-five dollar 1952 Dodge, when there was not enough money.

And then I got a job, and I rushed to call Patty long distance to tell her about it, pushing in my new quarters one after another at the pay phone at the YMCA.

"She is at the hospital -- didn't you know?" said a stranger's voice.

I connected to the hospital room where Patty was.

"She's in a coma, I don't know if she can hear you," said Mom, but put the phone by her ear.

"Patty, it's me, I got a job, I am okay!" I said, because I knew that was what she wanted to hear.

She came out of the coma, and said: "That's nice, Donnie, I love you..." Her voice softened, drifted off, and she slipped away.

In the room was Gloria, Patty's best friend, later to become my wife.

"It was like she was waiting to hear from you," said Gloria.

Patty was 23 years old when she was taken from us.

So... What if there was a cure, not only for leukemia, but also for cancer, maybe even HIV AIDS -- only it was not politically correct?

Dr. Dan Kaufman faces a similar situation. He works at the University of Minnesota, Department of Medicine, and Stem Cell Institute.

I wrote about Dr. Dan several years ago, when he had killed cancer in a dish -- using what he calls Natural Killer cells -- derived from embryonic stem cells.

Now he has done it with mice.

I have seen photographs of the mice with the cancers visible, the terrible tumor eating up the body of the poor animal.

Three mice: the first had cancer but no treatment: after 21 days its body was a mass of tumors.

The second mouse had Natural Killer (NK) cells made from adult stem cells (cord blood). It still had the cancer, although the tumor was diminished slightly. The adult stem cells helped it some, but not enough.

The third mouse was treated by NK cells made from human embryonic stem cells -- and it was completely healed. The tumors were 100 per cent gone. This exciting result was repeated in over a dozen animals.

If we can cure cancer in a mouse, should we not take that same research forward to human trials?
Not if the religious extremists get their way.

Did you see in the papers where the Englishman Dr. Robert Edwards who invented the In Vitro Fertility (IVF) process got the Nobel Prize? He deserved it -- more than four million people are alive today because of his efforts. Think of all those families desperate to have a baby, and their dreams came true because of him. (Another great scientist whose work contributed to the development of IVF was our own Alan Trounson, now President of the California stem cell program.)

But the same angry conservative voices which oppose our research now -- were against IVF back then. (The Catholic Church still opposes it to this day, although hundreds of thousands of Catholic families have benefited from the IVF procedure.)

Robert Edwards was denied public funding from his country; he had to get private money for the research to go forward.

He prevailed.

Today the world honors him, and the research he so courageously moved forward--and England is one of the greatest forces for research on this planet.

Unfortunately, in America today, Dan Kaufman faces the same ideological prejudice. He has some small grants for the moment, but when they run out, he will need more -- and the Republican power play may well block his funding.

Even assuming the GOP will not go forward with their pledge to ban ALL embryonic stem cell research, (which they have promised to do) private funding is not enough.

Kaufman finances his work with grants. He received one grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recognizing the genius quality of his work -- but the grant was for only $100,000 dollars -- which is not much for a laboratory. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest private grant givers in the world, but they are stretched too thin.

However, even with these limited funds, Dr. Kaufman has been able to now show that these same natural killer cells that destroy cancer cells can also effectively kill HIV-infected cells. This opens up the new potential to use human embryonic stem cells to treat and potentially cure HIV/AIDS.

Remember Richard Nixon's war on cancer? He authorized tens of billions of dollars on research to cure cancer research -- and this was before embryonic stem cells -- that research to date has reached a staggering one hundred billion dollars, and it was not successful, although it did move it forward.

Embryonic stem cell research deserves a similar commitment. Taking on a threat as big as cancer will mean serious money.

Consider, to take just one new medication all the way from scientist musing to drug store availability may cost in excess of a billion dollars.

The Federal government must step up to the plate for embryonic stem cell research. Back to Dan Kaufman. I gave him a ride from the airport once, and we chatted on the way; nothing extraordinary, just about our families -- he seemed like a regular person, and of course he has to put bread on the table like everybody else.

But his job is more than just for himself and his family. He needs government funding to take his astonishing science forward, to help cure not only cancer and leukemia, but also HIV/AIDS as well.

And yes, I know about induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells -- the new possible replacement for embryonic stem cells -- and of course I support them. Adult stem cell research is about 70 years old, and we still don't know everything it can do; human embryonic stem cell research is about 12 years old and we are only just scratching the surface of the possibilities; iPS cells are about three years old, and no way should we throw out everything else for its untried possibilities.

As Kaufman put it, "You can't have one without the other." It was through studying embryonic stem cell research that iPS cell research was discovered. To advance either one, the other is needed.

For one thing, iPS cells need time to be worked out; there are still problems with it. Dan is currently working on a grant involving both kinds of cells.

At every step the scientists need to be able to compare how the iPS cells multiply and change, alongside human ESCs, which are of course the real thing.

We must help Congress re-pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, as it did twice before, to prevent political shenanigans from blocking research like Dan Kaufman's.

But what a sorry state of affairs, that in America we are forced to pass a law to protect scientific freedom. I'll help do it, of course, with the leadership of champions like Colorado's Diana DeGette, who is always there ready to lead the fight for a great cause.

But how ridiculous it is to need a political war about whether research can be legally funded -- to save our loved ones dying of cancer.

To see the picture of the mice cured by embryonic stem cells, go here.

For more information on Dr. Kaufman's work:
Dan S. Kaufman, MD, PhD
Associate Professor, Dept. of Medicine
Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Transplantation
Associate Director, Stem Cell Institute
University of Minnesota