Thursday, February 19, 2009

Obama Offers Refreshing Approach On Stem Cell Research - Unlike Harper and Bush

While Stephen Harper and George W. Bush are die hard adherents to the anti-choice movement's refusal to accept and allow stem cell research, Barack Obama offers a fresh perspective - in keeping with Canada's (and liberal) values... Here's a great article from the Georgia Straight:

Stem-cell research could be medicine's magic bullet

By Gail Johnson

Barack Obama has breathed new life into stem-cell research, raising hopes for new life-saving therapies

Late one recent Wednesday afternoon, Phil Hartell headed downtown after work to have a beer. He stopped in at Steamworks, which is about the halfway point on his commute home from his job as a mechanical engineer. The friends he was supposed to meet there bailed, but that didn't matter, because Hartell was about to meet up with dozens of other people, people who, like him, have inquiring minds.

He wasn't about to take in a round of speed dating but rather to sit back and relax over a conversation on stem cells.

Hartell was one of about 100 people at the most recent Café Scientifique, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research event that aims to bring medical science out of the lab and into the lives of regular Joes. The February 4 gathering explored stem cells and their role in treating cancer.

“It seemed like an interesting topic that I didn't know anything about, and I thought the format sounded interesting,” Hartell, 27, says in an interview with the Georgia Straight. “This was useful and educational, and there was mingling going on….It gave me insight into the research that's going on and where the funding is going.”

Chris Cochrane was there too. The local actor's grandfather died of cancer, and he wanted to learn more about how stem cells could be used to treat the disease.

“I've always had a vague interest in science; I have a curious mind,” the 24-year-old tells the Straight in a phone interview. “It's a fascinating topic, but it's not something I knew very much about.”

Glass of white wine in hand, Cochrane kicked back to ask questions of researchers and former cancer patients and talk with other laypeople like him.

“There was some science jargon, and some of it flew over my head, but it was such an interesting topic, and it's always good to be more informed,” he says. “Plus, for young people starting to make money, you learn where it's smart to put charitable donations.”

If there's one area of science that's sure to generate debate, interest, and some confusion, it's stem-cell research. It's an especially hot topic now that President Barack Obama has pledged his support of scientific inquiry into stem cells, including human embryonic stem cells.

George W. Bush, by contrast, banned federal funding of research into embryonic stem cells, based on his religious views. Critics like him argue that destroying embryos for scientific research is morally unacceptable. Proponents, meanwhile, counter that harvesting stem cells from embryos discarded through invitro fertilization programs, for example, is ethical. Because of the Bush administration's opposition, many American researchers came to Canada, which is considered a world leader in this area of medical science. The Ottawa-based Stem Cell Network, for instance, links the work of more than 80 scientists and aims to translate research into clinical applications.

Stem cells are “primitive” cells in bone marrow that give rise to all blood cells. They have the ability to renew and grow into other types of cells. Although embryonic stem cells stir up the most contention for obvious reasons, not all research uses those particular cells.

Connie Eaves, director of the Terry Fox Laboratory at the B.C. Cancer Agency, who spoke at the Café Scientifique, explains that much research is based on what's commonly referred to as “normal” stem cells.

To simplify explaining the way stem cells could be used to treat cancer, she uses the analogy of weeds growing on your lawn. “If you have weeds, your lawn mower will cut off the grass and cut off the weeds. Your grass looks nice, but you didn't cut out the roots,” she explains on the line from her office. “And so the weeds will grow back.” It's the same thing with a tumour: radiation might make the tumour itself disappear, but that doesn't mean all the cancerous cells have been destroyed. However, if you replace all of the body's blood cells with stem cells—as in a bone-marrow transplant—then, ideally, those stem cells will regenerate new, healthy cells.

“Bone-marrow transplants are one area of cancer therapy that makes use of normal stem cells,” Eaves explains. “But there's a lot of interest in curing people of other diseases from normal stem cells. They are the seeds that grow the grass.”

Scientists are investigating the role stem cells could play in treating diabetes.

“Stem cells hold great promise for diabetes,” says Bruce Verchere, head of the diabetes research program at Vancouver's Child and Family Research Institute, in a phone interview.

Diabetes is characterized by sustained elevation in blood glucose from a lack of insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells. Transplanting pancreatic islets to replace beta cells in patients with Type 1 diabetes is one possible treatment, but there are limitations. The long-term success isn't known, and there is a shortage of donors. Plus, one risk of stem cells is that they can become teratomas, meaning they can multiply out of control—much like cancer cells.

However, researchers like Verchere are looking into how stem cells could produce insulin-producing cells for transplant, which would overcome the lack of pancreatic tissue available for transplantation.

Verchere says Obama's commitment to research is especially vital during the recession.

“Obama accepts science as being important,” Verchere says. “These are tough economic times. We rely not just on government funds but also on support from charitable organizations. They're getting less donations. The size of grants and the number of grants is smaller. Government funding is even more important right now.”

Jane Roskams, associate professor in UBC's department of zoology and a researcher at the Brain Research Centre and the International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries, is studying the way stem cells can be used to repair the brain after strokes, spinal-cord injuries, and traumatic brain injuries. A former researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, she was one of those scientists who came to Canada because of Bush's restrictive policies on stem-cell research. She says that one potential downside of Obama's progressive stance on medical research is that many of her colleagues might decide to head back across the border. Nevertheless, she says, his position—and his pledge of research funding—is still excellent news.

“The biggest effect on Canadian science is that U.S. science will be healthy, and with reduced bans on stem-cell research, more good research can be done, and everyone benefits from that,” Roskams tells the Straight in a phone interview. “Hopefully, the Canadian government will open its eyes and follow suit.”

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