Boinkie's Blog


Monday, January 26, 2009

Embryonic stem cell hype and spin (REVISED)

Most of the articles you are probably reading about embryonic stem cells will be cheerful about how these companies are using embryonic stem cells to make people with spinal cord injuries to walk.

There will also be the usual "Bad Bush stopped this because he hated science" (or the variation "because those big bad right wing fundamentalists objected).

But the hype isn't quite true.

Stem cells have been used to cure people for years: adult stem cells, that is.

As for "embryonic stem cells", there are ways that these could be obtained that makes them morally acceptable for Catholics.

One can get embryonic stem cells from ectopic pregnancies (Miscarriage embryos are often too "old" to use). Or they could be derived from amniotic fluid, from Umbillical cords, or from biopsy of the placenta that is commonly done to diagnose defects in the first trimester.

And, of course, more recently, scientists have figured out how to make adult stem cells "revert" to embryonic like stem cells, and indeed various experiments have already been done with these stem cells, which are cheap and more abundent, and an identical "match" to the person needing treatment.

But apparantly the Geron stem cells come from "left over" "embryos".

The argument is that these "left over embryos" will be discarded (read die a natural death) anyway, so why not use them.

But the dirty little secret is that few couples actually donate such embryos, and old embryos aren't desirable for research. That's why the company behind todays' headline, Geron, is busy trying to get California to allow to pay for the fresh eggs to make new embryos.

A "fresh" egg in the US costs $5000 plus dollars, a lot of us in the third world worry that again poor people in Indian and the Philippines will be enticed into selling body parts (in this case being given medicines to "superovulate" numerous eggs). The "complication" rate in the US is low, but under third world conditions, even those "minor" complications (e.g. infections) could be fatal.

But the main ethical issue here is that Catholics and others see such embryos as humans, and that destroying them is the same as killing a human being.

Others see the life as human life, but nevertheless are disturbed by the callusness of experimenting on human life: even if they see the embryos (actually pre embryos) as having less dignity than fully formed humans, they still are disturbed about experiments that view potential human life as merely something for scientists to experiment on.

In this case, the cells have been transformed and grown in the laboratory, making the cells "derived" from embryos (which die in the process of removing the stem cells).

It's that last part-- the killing of embryos to get stem cells from them, that is ethically abhorant to Catholics and others, but the cells themselves now are distant from the illicit act, having been growing in laboratories for many months.

So, could a Catholic morally use such a treatment if it cured his loved one?

Ah, there's the problem. But it is not exactly a "new" moral dilemma.

At least one childhood vaccines was originally developed from theraputic abortions of children with that virus, but many years have passed since their development, so the Vatican has allowed Catholics to use the vaccines until another source is available.

But in this case, there are other sources of cells to use that probably would work just as well, so ethically it is just plain wrong.

But the interesting part of the "experiment" is that although the hype says they are trying to regrow the injured spinal cord, they are not using immature nerve stem cells, but stem cells that are programmed to grow into the lining cells that coat the nerve cells.

According to Web MD, they took embryonic stem cells, processed them and in the lab made the "precursor cells" that are supposed to grow into "oligodendrocytes -- the cells that make up the myelin sheaths that coat nerves in the spinal cord."

This brings up all sorts of questions:

Will these lining cells turn into oligodendrites, or into nerve cells? Will they merely protect the nerves so that the nerves will regrow, or will they form a "scaffold" so that the person's own nerve cells will regrow? And will the nerves actually regrow?

There are other experiments using various methods to get the person's own nerve cells to grow using "scaffolds" that allow them to pass by the injured area: using liquid scaffolds, or biosynthetic scaffolds, or even "nanofibers".

So do precursor stem cells of "oligodendrites" have an advantage over other experiemental treatments?

Will the precursor oligodendrites help the nerves to grow correctly? Or will the nerve cells grow into a tangle of nerve cells (something that sometimes happens when you cut a skin nerve). Will these cells actually allow the person's own nerve cells to regenerate or grow up the spinal cord (or down from the brain into the Spinal cord, since many spinal cord cells are located in the brain and "synapse" in the cord).

And if they do grow, will they connect correctly? Just putting in nerve cells is like just putting in electrical wires: They don't do much good unless they go where you want them to, and they have to connect to the right places so that they work properly.

Then you have more questions: Will the "transplanted" cells be tolerated by the recipient? Or will the patient have to take rejection drugs to stop the body from destroying them via the rejection process, a problem that one sees with most organ donations.

Finally, there is the question of cancer, overgrowth, and benign tumors.

Previous studies transplanting embryonic cells into human brains for Parkinsons' disease did improve a few people, but most didn't work very long: And in a few cases, the cells "overgrew" and resulted in tumors, and in other experiments, the cells overgrew and the patients developed spasms that was worse than their original Parkinsonian slow movements.

If the cells should "overgrow", you could end up with tumors or even cancer.

Or the cells could overgrowtangled and result in the person in severe pain from neuromas.

Or the cells could grow wrong and result in the person having uncontrolled movements.

Finally, although the company claims that they have lots of success, I'm waiting for the animal studies to show that they took embryonic animal stem cells and placed them into animals with spinal cord injuries, and they made the animals walk again. Yes, there are rat studies. But what about primate studies first?

The irony about "primate studies" is that if you experiment on monkeys, you'll get your home firebombed, whereas if you merely kill an embryo that could become a baby, and use it's cells to experiment on handicapped humans, you are a hero.

Despite the hype, these first studies are supposed to be only to see if the treatment is "safe" for humans, so they will not be given a large dose of cells. If the cells don't harm the recipient, they will then be given a larger dose of the cells to see if the cells regrow the spinal cord.

Even if these experiments work, it will be years until the "treatment" will be ready to use in people who are not guinea pigs for the company.

But of course, you wouldn't know that if you just read the hype.

In the meanwhile, experiments with adult stem cells, including matching "patient derived" stem cells and other techniques will receive less publicity.

(an earlier version of this post was corrected: The stem cells come from ivf not abortions)


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No catholics (or Jews) need apply

I thought I had overlooked something, but now even Time magazine has noticed it:

The absence of Catholic and Jewish clergy at the Obama inauguration festivities.

One usually has two clergy giving prayers at the inaugural, one to say an opening prayer and one to pray at the end... so one can understand that Obama might want a prominent Black clergyman to give a prayer, or that he might want to court Evangelicals by asking megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren to give a blessing at the Inaugural.

And one can understand that not every religion is represented, of course. But when one googles Catholic with inauguration, there are no articles about Catholic clergy at all: even though Catholics make up a quarter of the American electorate.

Indeed, the only article that mentions the word "Catholc" seems to be about Senator Biden getting applauded for attending a Catholic episode which raised some eyebrows among Catholics who are so gauche to think that one attends church to worship God, and you are supposed to leave the politicking to coffee afterwards.

But Time is wrong when they say no "priests" were invited. Technically, Episcopal bishop Robinson, who gave the invocation at the Mall, is a priest.

His prayer was actually quite nice, asking for inclusiveness for all, righteous anger at those who discriminate, and God's help with "his child Obama"..

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

Robinson also reminded his listeners about not hurting the vulnerable:

Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

Ah, but does the "most vulnerable" include the unborn?

Because the dirty little secret is that most practicing Catholics suspect the absense of Catholic clergy in the festivities are because they might mention the slaughter of the unborn...and not just the unborn, but the handicapped, and the elderly who are in danger of elimination under the philosophy of the culture of death.

The Catholic bishops are very very worried about Obama's promise early last year that his first item in office would be to pass the "Freedom of Choice" act, which would eliminate the protection of Catholics and Catholic institutions from cooperating with abortion. If this is done, the Catholic bishops say they will shut down Catholic hospitals rather than cooperate with evil: and there are actually a few of them with guts enough to do it.

So the absence of Catholic clergy among the prominent speakers at the Inauguration is not a good sign to either Catholics or the pro life movement.

As for the missing Rabbis: This may be an oversight, but it also bodes

ill for relations with Israel in the near future.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

And the band played all night

We didn't get much sleep last evening.

A neighbor down the street died, and is being buried today; so last night they had a small band for music.

The music was so sad that it made you cry, but then as the evening went on, the music changed to soft ballads, hymns, and love songs.

The funeral isn't a sad one: the gentleman was 90 years old, and had lived a good life. He was a businessman, and a member of his local church (7th Day Adventist) and had a large family.

Unlike most people, he died in the hospital: he had suffered from prostate cancer, died of a heart attack in Manila, where he was having cancer treatment.

Most people here die at home. This is both good and bad. One of our relatives had a fractured hip, but never did get surgery for it (because of his weak condition and bedsores, he was too sick to operate), and died of pneumonia, after three months of suffering. But he didn't die alone, or in a nursing home, nor with strangers.

I hate suffering: I'm not sure which is better: good nursing by strangers, or loving care? And it's ashamed that people can't always have both...because they can.

Our people often can't afford a well balanced diet, nor medicines, nor a long hospitalization for an illness. Yet the idea that suffering is part of life is also part of the culture.

If a person is sick, the family will get together and manage to get money for the illness, or to care for the sick person or elderly person in the home.

Death is at home, not usually in hospitals, and funerals are held in the home, often with the deceased in the living room with the house open to all until the funeral.

Last week, a million people attended the "Black Nazarene" procession in Manila.The image, that of Christ carrying the cross, was attended by a million people. is that the image is the symbol of suffering: communicating the idea that Jesus suffered like we do, and that he is present when we suffer.

So the cross, the symbol of death and suffering, not only reminds us that we need to carry our own cross of suffering but reminds that helping those who carry the heavy burden of disease and weakness is the same as helping Christ himself...

But, as all Christians know, without the cross, there is no resurrection.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Framing the issue to silence the faithful (first draft).

Homophobia shouted the headlines.
Who? The pope.

It seems that the Pope started talking about "human ecology" being destroyed by gender blurring he was under fire for being "homophobic".

The press took Benedict's words out of context, yet the speech didn't even mention the word gay or lesbian.

But just like Paul VI was correct in pointing out the consequences of making sex a guilt free act that had nothing to do with responsibility or children, so too the confusion of sexual identity that is one consequence of the sexual revolution has long reaching societal consequences. And "gay marriage" is a symptom of this confusion, not the cause of it.

Like most issues, this one has many sides, most of which are subtle, but the error the Pope is pointing out is the idea prevalent in universities that gender doesn't exist: gender is merely "imposed" on you by society.

The other idea behind this rejection of gender has to do with the idea is that all Rules are bad (we need to be "free" to make up our own lives).

Combine the two ideas, and you get the assumption that if we are to be truly free, we need to destroy the laws and customs that limit our freedom to chose what sex we belong to.

Then it goes to the next step: seeing men and women the same, so that laws recognize women have families and bear children are eliminated.

Even the "mother" of feminism, Betty Frieden, criticized this, pointing out that most women need laws to enable them to work and raise a family, not make laws that try to fit women into a male work week.

Similarly, any institution that sees men as men and women as women is to be eliminated: which makes marriage, which for 50 thousand years or so has been between men and women, is considered a problem.

And the "gender confusion" of society encoded into law has many consequences, from persecution of churches who refuse to condone gay marriage (under civil rights laws) to the "trophy children" of gay couples, raised without the balance of male and female role models.

Biologically, gender does matter: Hormones matter, and having babies matters, and both genetics and hormones make the brain work differently in men and women.

Yet as Edith stein pointed out, yes, women can do many of the same jobs as men because God gave them the talent to do the work, but women and men also bring into these jobs the gift of their masculinity or femininity.

Even if one has no belief in God one can suggest that biology and anthropology and evolution all have reasons why men and women need to complement each other in marriage, so that children can be raised in safety and love.

And a healthy "human ecology" encourages customs that build on biological reality by devising rules to encourage men to "pair bond" with a woman. For it is mainly in the institution of marriage that humans become mature, learn to sacrifice for the family's sake, learn responsibility for children and the elderly members, and provide a safe haven to nurture children.

That is why the Pope's address was indeed about human ecology: because when a society promotes a false "freedom from one's inborn gender, and imposes laws to destroy societal institutions that don't agree, the end result is that difference, it destroys the family.

And once you destroy the family, the individual is left alone and isolated, without help or support. And those who will be devestated the most will be the poor, the sick, the children, and the elderly.

Yes, the government in rich countries can try to fill in the gap of the support lost by destroyed families, but I find it interesting that those who voted against the Gay marriage law in California came from poor minorities (blacks and Hispanics) who have suffered the most from the devestation of destroyed family life.

And the bad news is that this devestation will be celebrated with words about freedom and love, ignoring the isolation and misery of loneliness that is the true fruit of the destruction of family life.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

It's all about self control

The most absurd religious "discussion" forum on the internet has to be the Washington Post/Newsweek "religious forum" named "On Faith".
This week they discuss religion in the next year.

So Bishop Sprong (Episcopal) insists:
My hope is that the traditional forms of religion that have dominated the Bush Administration and that have found expression in the abuse of homosexuals, the denial of women's reproductive rights, the opposition to the insights of science, the negativity toward stem cell research and the suppression of competent and responsible end of life decisions will fade quietly from our public life.

A nice summary of the "culture of death"

Friday, January 02, 2009

Dr. Pryor rip