Ten years from now, school children reading about major events in history and in science -- other than from textbooks produced for Texas schools -- will learn: "On Friday, July 30, 2010, just 18 months into President Obama's first term, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first tests of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in patients. It was the beginning of the era of Regenerative Medicine."
They will also read that it was totally ignored by the media.
Within a couple of months, a patient paralyzed by a spinal cord injury who is to undergo surgery to stabilize his spine will receive as part of that procedure the first-ever injection of hESCs, in this case altered in the laboratory to become a certain type of nerve cell. A Bush FDA would never have allowed it (although the Tea Party would have allowed it on day 1, to remove all government interference so anyone with anything he called a good hESC could inject it or anything else, right? -- an interesting question to put to Dr. Rand Paul, and Gov. Sarah Palin, is it not?)
In laboratory animals these same hESCs (note: human cells in an animal and not rejected!) restored lower limb and tail function in rats that had crush injuries to their spinal cords. Untreated rats remained paralyzed.
If these hESCs are safe, and perform as hoped, that injection will be the 21st century's "shot-heard-round-the-world".
Also in development in many laboratories and companies are hESCs that have been altered in the laboratory to become heart cells (to reverse heart failure), pancreas cells (to reverse type I diabetes), other nerve cells (to reverse Parkinson's Disease), eye cells (to reverse macular degeneration), and so forth.
A study of hESCs in macular degeneration (loss of the central part of vision, leaving the ability to see only peripherally, affecting 2-3 million Americans) is slated for this year in the UK. Those same cells worked in an animal model of that disease.
The embryos from which these cells arise were frozen from IVF procedures, and would have been discarded, but instead were used, with parental permission, as the source of cells to save and improve the lives of others.
The positive impact on human suffering is beyond measurement.
But, the positive effects on our long-term, structural debt problems can be sketched. Health care costs in our aging population are the largest part of our potential debt, and diabetes and its complications alone account for ~20% of that cost. For most uses, hESC will likely be out-patient therapy.
To provide a context for how far we have come politically, note that the Republican Congress in the early part of this decade, not once but twice, passed a law outlawing all hESC research, and providing for the arrest at the border of any returning US citizen who had gone abroad for hESC treatment.
Imagine police being empowered to stop you, demanding not only your papers, but also your DNA -- all brought to you by your friendly "small-government" people.
If Democrats cannot find the backbone to go after Republicans on their transparent hypocrisy (Karl Rove, lying as usual about the numbers, criticizing Harry Reid for not bringing "enough" stimulus money to Nevada), perhaps a good backbone transplant, using hESCs, might help them keep them from darkening our lives again.
Hopefully, some patients who would otherwise never walk again, will now walk. And, hopefully, they will walk in the inexorable march of history, forward and not backwards.
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