Medicine & Science

A Forgettable Solution

About four million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive degenerative disease that attacks the brain and results in impaired memory, thinking and behavior. Although it is believed that one form of protein called apolipoprotein E (ApoE) may be a risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s, scientists still do not completely understand how ApoE increases the risk.

For years scientists have speculated that a cure for many diseases may be found in the human stem cell. These special cells have a unique ability to develop into any of the 210 different cell types found in the body. This comes in handy when you need new tissues for organ transplants, say a liver for example, or replacement cells for those that were destroyed by diseases like diabetes or Parkinson’s, or trauma from spinal cord injuries.

Unfortunately, these cells were as elusive as they were valuable. That was until oncologist and pediatrician Dr. Curt I. Civin discovered a way of separating stem cells from the rest of marrow cells. This gave researchers new hope in finding a cure for cancer and other diseases affecting the blood and bone marrow. Not long after his discovery, scientists found a method to isolate and maintain human stem cells in culture, acquired from fertilized human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. Human embryonic stem cells are removed after killing a living human embryo, two to nine days old.

Bad medicine

Although treatment using human embryonic stem cells is theoretical, there have been attempts to inject embryonic tissue into the human body. One such study, involving Parkinson’s patients, proved disastrous. Patients had holes drilled into their heads; half received fetal cells injected into their brains, the other half, representing the control group, received nothing. There was no clear improvement in any of them, and some were worse off than before, developing severe uncontrolled movements of their bodies.

Things appear even more grim in the case of using human embryonic stem cells for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Many in the scientific community are coming forward to disclose that researchers have known for some time that these cells will not be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. In fact, researchers told a Senate subcommittee that Alzheimer’s is a whole brain disease rather than a cellular disorder, which rules out an effective use of stem cells altogether.

Dr. Paul Tuttle, co-chair of the ethics committee of Sheboygan Memorial Medical Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, confirms that, “Even the most ardent research specialist would have to admit the path to finding a cure to Alzheimer’s is not likely to lie with stem cells, whether they’re adult or embryonic. The most promising research rests with understanding the pre-genetic disposition of Alzheimer’s in order to chemically modify the expression of certain potentially damaging proteins, such as the beta amyloid protein.”

Already the Alzheimer’s Association reports that the “U.S. Food and Drug Administration  approved five drugs to treat Alzheimer symptoms that affect memory and thinking skills, dozens of experimental Alzheimer drugs entered development worldwide, and scientists gained unprecedented understanding of brain cells, revealing hundreds of other promising drug targets.”

Politics

In light of these successes, one might ask, “Why even persist in wasting valuable life, not to mention research dollars, on human embryonic stem cells?”  These cells are now being used as political pawns. Last year, President Bush agreed to relax the 2001 ban prohibiting federal financing for human embryonic experiments, permitting federal funding of research using the 60 existing stem cell lines in various research facilities, derived from frozen embryos. There are about 400,000 of these embryos existing at fertility labs across the country.

The president, however, upheld the ban against any additional research beyond those lines. Since then, small interest groups, politicians, celebrities and pharmaceutical and research companies have appeared before congress in hopes to alter the President’s position.

Then enters Nancy Reagan, struggling to care for her ailing husband suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. For the proponents of human embryonic stem cell research, Mrs. Reagan became the perfect poster child for their cause. Forget that she is emotionally vulnerable, or that her husband, during his presidency, was a champion of personhood and worked to reverse Roe. Human embryonic stem cell research has now become a platform for those seeking representation in the White House.

Follow the money

Profit margins constitute another major element driving the human embryonic stem cell  research. One international marketing company offers investment/support information on the following: 82 companies involved in the development of human embryonic stem cell therapeutics worldwide; 57 academic organizations involved in human embryonic stem cell research in the U.S.; and 19 laboratories outside the U.S. with advanced research in the field.

Even privately run companies, like Geron, which reported a loss in 2003, rely on the hope—even if imagined—that human embryonic stem cells hold financial promise. Since the general public isn’t even sure what these cells are, their ignorance is investment money in the company’s pocket. This “innovative” research, snake oil or not, seems to promise the solution to all injuries and ailments. Sadly, that’s all the general public cares to hear.

We need to start listening closer. Those in the research camp are willing to go to great lengths to get their precious funding, even if it means redefining what it is to be human.

In a recent article on Salon.com, Michael West, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, a private company working on human embryonic stem cells, described an embryo as neither human life nor a person, but as “just an ordinary group of cells.”

“It’s not a developing human being,” West told Salon.com. “There are no body cells of any kind… There are not even any cells that have begun to become any body cells of any kind.” Statements like these show that research companies aren’t opposed to lying either.

Moral convenience

This redefinition of personhood originated, in part, with in vitro fertilization.  The technique of in vitro fertilization (IVF) consists in bringing about the fusion of the egg and the spermatozoa in the laboratory instead of in the women’s fallopian tubes. IVF technology involves ovulation in order to obtain multiple eggs, thus making available more embryos, so that higher pregnancy rates can be achieved.

After the couple has given birth to their desired number of children, they are then forced to decide what to do with their remaining embryos, which have been preserved and frozen through a process called cryopreservation. National statistics reveal that over 400,000 embryonic babies remain frozen in storage.

What started as a normal desire to have children has turned into a complex moral dilemma. It becomes hard to rationalize why those same precious embryos (children) that were wanted a few months ago are now redefined as “non-human” tissue to be discarded, experimented on, or for conscience sake, “frozen indefinitely.”

The Reagan Legacy

Many people have “forgotten” (if not outright ignored) that human embryonic stem cell research kills a preborn baby. And when, during the onset of Alzheimer’s, Ronald Reagan began to forget how to accomplish simple tasks, proponents of this research also “forgot” the president’s unequivocal pro-life defense of the human person. Indeed, it was at the height of her grief that former First Lady Nancy Reagan made her appeal for human embryonic stem cell research to receive funding, in order to find a cure Alzheimer’s disease.

Human beings are often limited when making decisions solely on felt emotional needs. Infertile parents are eventually willing to kill the embryonic children they have “left over” from in vitro fertilization; people suffering from disease will accept whatever means to alleviate their pain; and so Nancy Reagan gives the ok to sacrifice human embryonic life to save others like her husband. Indeed, it takes great character and life perspective to embrace the limitations of being human.  Here are the words of an individual with such qualities:

“Every legislator, every doctor, and every citizen needs to recognize that the real issue is whether to affirm and protect the sanctity of all human life, or to embrace a social ethic where some human lives are valued and others are not. As a nation, we must choose between the sanctity of life ethic and the “quality of life” ethic… We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life—the unborn—without diminishing the value of all human life.”

These are the words of former president Ronald Reagan. His response to the abortion crisis, given 21 years ago, is still relevant today—the heart of man is still the same. Many will sacrifice whatever and whoever for their own personal gain, but those who truly honor the former president’s legacy of life will squelch their selfish desires to protect the benefits and rights of others.

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About the author

Lynne M. Thompson

Lynne M. Thompson is a freelance writer from Modesto, Calif.