Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Meatpunk: Look what stem cells can do now

Some days life imitates art. Doctors in Spain reported today the successful use of stem cells in a tissue-engineered whole organ transplant operation. In this case, a patient who was in danger of losing a lung to tuberculosis needed a trachea transplant to repair her damaged airways. The doctors used the trachea of a dead organ donor and a concoction of chemicals with the patient's adult stem cells to "vat-grow" an entirely new trachea. Of course, the reason this is so exciting is that using regrown organs means that the patient should run little risk of rejecting the new organ. In this case, the patient not only used no anti-rejection drugs, but five months after the transplant she is in perfect health and the organ is working with its own blood supply. This means there is almost no chance the organ will ever be rejected.

It has long been a staple of cyberpunk stories that organs and even limbs can be regrown in "vats" for easy transplantation, but it is miraculous to see this theory become a reality. I cannot help but wonder what the benefits we might see from stem cell research should the US allow funding of embryonic stem cell research again. Though I've heard the arguments against such restrictions many times, the cons pale in comparison to the genuine potential for good such research holds. This isn't about political points, or snowflake children, it's about saving and improving the quality of lives for people suffering from debilitating diseases like Parkinson's or devastating injuries and sicknesses such as this patient suffered. Embryos used in stem cell research are not snowflake children, they are embryos that are never used and will be discarded once their parents no longer need them. Please do not let innocent people suffer because of some high-minded, wrongheaded ideal about mythical never-babies.

Perhaps in a few years we can regrow new spines for paraplegics injured in car crashes. Maybe we can replace the limbs that have been blown off our soldiers by some IED in Iraq. Could cancerous cells be replaced by completely healthy cells without damaging radiation and enervating drugs like TNF blockers? Birth defects, genetic diseases... is there any field of medicine that might not benefit from all kinds of stem cell research?

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