On Stem Cells
Pro-lifers, as much as I disagree with them, are in no way hypocritical for getting "stem cell transplants."
Republican congressman Steve Scalise was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an extremely aggressive blood cancer, and announced he will be receiving a “stem cell transplant” to treat the disease. This has attracted numerous accusations of being a hypocrite for opposing “stem cell research.” In my humble opinion, Scalise is a deplorable human being, using his power to spread hate and destruction. However, he is not a hypocrite, and this is all based on an easy-to-make medical misunderstanding about the various types of “stem cells” present in human biology.
What unites all forms of stem cells is a destiny to become something else, a template to be transformed into something more advanced and functional. However, not all stem cells are created equal. Broadly speaking, there are pluripotent stem cells, which can transform into any type of tissue — but are only naturally present in embryos — and more specialized stem cells that have much more limited potential, for instance, hematopoietic stem cells, which even adults produce.
Bone marrow produces both red (oxygen-transporting) and white (disease-fighting) blood cells, the latter of which has numerous subtypes. When fighting infections, your body produces a higher amount of white blood cells. The proportions of each subtype depend on the type and severity of the infection, e.g. neutrophils are produced in higher quantities for bacterial and fungal infections than for viral ones.
To manage these shifting needs, bone marrow produces hematopoietic stem cells can transform into any sort of blood cell. Adults produce these in large quantities. “Stem cell transplants,” often also called bone marrow transplants, transplant hematopoietic stem cells. Though most of the negative effects of blood cancers are typically caused by malignant blood cells dispersed throughout the body, they, as you might expect, originate from diseased bone marrow. When the disease fails to respond to more standard cancer treatments, more drastic measures become necessary.
The patient is given especially large enough doses of chemotherapy and radiation to kill off a substantial portion of their bone marrow — if the patient is healthy enough, typically all of it. Healthy bone marrow tissue is then reintroduced, restoring normal production of blood cells. This is an extremely risky procedure that causes temporary but profound suppression of the immune system.
However, given their ability to their ability to transform into anything in the body, pluripotent stem cells have a much wider range of possible therapeutic potential. The easiest and, for awhile, only way to obtain these cells is harvesting them from embryos, which destroys the embryo in the process. This has led to pro-life condemnation of the use of pluripotent stem cells.
In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka, a researcher from Japan, discovered a way to transform differentiated adult cells back into pluripotent stem cells through the introduction of special genes called Yamanaka factors, for which he received the Nobel prize. Not only does this remove the involvement of embyros, in some cases, it could remove the need for transplantation at all. For instance, some of the most promising research into reversing aging involves carefully controlled use of Yamanaka factors to transform a person’s cells to stem cells and back — but, in the process, changing their “epigenetics,” the way DNA is expressed, back to a more youthful state.
Given the use and therapeutic potential of hematopoietic stem cells was discovered entirely independently of any sort of research using embryos, people who are staunchly “pro-life” — much as I might intensely disagree with them — are in no way hypocritical for getting a stem cell transplant. With the techniques pioneered by Yamanaka-san, even pluripotent stem cells will not require embryos, though one could make the case they are still hypocritical from benefitting from embryonic research, even if the treatment itself doesn’t involve embryos.
Republicans certainly remain a significant obstacle in providing better, more advanced healthcare. Outside of the realm of stem cells, they fight to repeal Obamacare and against better policies like Medicare-for-All or the public option. I have little sympathy for Steve Scalise in this fight, as he gets access to fantastic doctors and hospitals that many simply cannot afford — in large part thanks to the policies of Republicans. But it’s important to avoid spreading medical misinformation, especially about a topic like stem cells where deeper knowledge could lead to more common and more enthusiastic support. We should be doing everything we can to accelerate the usage of these medical marvels in service of human health and happiness.
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