The Human Miracle of Stem Cells

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Here's a remarkable set of diary entries by a man describing what it's like to see after 43 years of blindness. Link via Scott MacMillan.

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  1. We must take steps to prevent this horrific technology from being brought into common use!

  2. Because stem cells ARE children! They’re putting babies in his eyes!

  3. Brian and Madog: Your jokes might have been funny(ier) if the stem cells used in this operation were not actually adult stem cells, as opposed to fetal ones.

  4. Ironic you should say this Brian. After reading this I just discussed it with a few people here at work. We have one person who sees this as a bad thing. “God meant for him to have no sight, who are we to question that.” I never actually thought such things could be said outside of TV or bad fiction. However, the rest of us all agreed that its a great thing. Also, the person who thought this was bad believes I will spend eternity in hell for smoking, drinking coffee, being an athiest, and listening to “devils music” (stuff like Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, Frank Zappa…)

  5. wow, incredible!

    With all the talk on stem cells being used to help paralyzed folks, I never thought about other treatments. Can they cure some types of deafness? What will the deaf community say? what about folks who have lost all their teeth? Can they be used to generate hair for balding people?

  6. Stel–

    I’ll see you there. We can have a coffee, smoke, and trade records.

  7. Stel –

    Ask the person why they get in the car in the
    morning to come into work when God obviously
    intended for them to stay home.

    There is no way to make these “God’s will”
    arguments consistent with any sort of human
    action that I can see. If you really take
    this literally, you should just sit around
    waiting God to do things to you. Somehow
    I do not think that is correct, particularly
    in light of the parable of the talents.

    Posting too much today.

    Jeff

  8. Stel –

    I don’t know about all that other stuff, but listening to Blue Oyster Cult – man, you DESERVE to go to hell for that ! 🙂

  9. Also, the procedure was performed at a Catholic hospital. Those damn baby nuts!

  10. This story is simply not as miraculous as anyone is trying to make it. The stem cells were not the important part of the operation, the cornea transplant was. The stem cells did not restore sight, they only helped the cornea transplant work. Finally, there was never any neurological damage. Mike May was never neurologically blind in the Stevie-Wonder sense, but he had poor corneas, and had been receiving cornea transplants since childhood. Scarring and clouding made each of these operations unsuccessful.

    Without taking too much away from CEO Mike and his aggressive publicity machine, this is not “Christopher Reeve” stuff here. Perhaps the real result of this operation is that stem cells can help us conduct more successful transplant operations, but it’s a vast overstatement to say stem cells can make blind men see. Neuronal damage is extremely hard to fix. When neuronal damage can be fixed in this fashion, you’ll hear the story blasted from every rooftop.

    And again, I’ll remind people that there is a difference between adult stem cells, which are not controversial (except to some straw men Stel works with), and fetal stem cells, which are still an open topic for a good proportion of society today.

  11. Tell your fundie friend that if God didn’t want us to invent things, she wouldn’t have given us big brains.

    Make sure you say “she.”

  12. Stel,

    What? No Robin Trower? You deserve anything you get!

  13. I’m still waiting for the stem cells that cure brain atrophy, i.e. stupidity.

  14. Hovig John Heghinian,

    “And again, I’ll remind people that there is a difference between adult stem cells, which are not controversial (except to some straw men Stel works with), and fetal stem cells, which are still an open topic for a good proportion of society today.” Etc

    What “proportion” would that be ? Why does one gets the feeling that you would be thrilled if procedures like this, which you seem to think is prosaic, failed ? Something to do with your religious beliefs, perhaps ?
    Here’s a proposition – people who regard a medical procedure to be verboten should refrain from taking advantage of it. And this should be applied retroactively to religious proscriptions for, oh,150 years. Deal ?

  15. I could never vote for Bush after his stem cell “compromise” erected a daunting barrier to the research needed to combat diseases that cause pain, suffering, debilitation, and death. Many will die for Bush’s ideology, which seems to be a peculiarly odious admixture of religious revolution and political expediency.

    Vocal Bush opponents denounce for putting a few hundred mostly guilty murderers to death in Texas; Bush’s anti-research agenda will help put millions stricken by disease into a premature grave just to satisfy the requirements his religious dogma.

    If there is such a place, President George W. Bush will surely burn in hell.

  16. I just hope, in all this excitement about the stem cell debate, that people aren’t neglecting to read the story itself, which is really quite extraordinary.

  17. It is a fascinating story. This guy has probably had to hire a personal secretary to screen out calls from Oliver Sacks.

  18. To JDM: It’s highly unlikely. This man is conducting an extremely aggressive publicity campaign to draw attention to what is frankly a non-story, at least medically speaking.

    To the anonymous person at 04:32 PM, and also to Matt Welch:

    It appears there is a great deal of medical misunderstanding over exactly what happened here, about what operation was conducted, and also what stem cells are all about. Let me try to shed some more light on these things.

    (BTW, if someone wants to set me up as a straw man for religious fundamentalism, go ahead and try. You’ll fail. But who cares. I’m not going to argue about that. There’s no profit there.)

    Question: What operation was conducted? Answer: Mike May received a corneal transplant. He was never “blind,” like Stevie Wonder, but he had bad corneas, and he was never able to receive a transplant, although doctors have been trying for many decades. Cornea transplants are everyday operations nowadays. In this case, doctors used some adult stem cells to help him so he wouldn’t reject the corneas. This is an everyday transplant story, not a “stem cell” story, and certainly not a “blind can now see” story.

    Question: Aren’t stem cells controversial? Answer: No. Only to the media. There are three kinds of stem cells, only one of which is controversial, but the media don’t tell anyone this. There are (a) fetal stem cells, (b) “cord blood” stem cells, and (c) adult stem cells. Only the first is controversial. Mike May’s operation used adult stem cells, which are not controversial by a long shot.

    Question: What is the difference between the different stem cells? Answer: Adult stem cells are harvested from adults, and fetal (or embryonic) stem cells are harvested from fetuses, either aborted fetuses or pre-embryo cells, while “cord blood” stem cells are harvested from the umbilical cord after birth.

    Medically speaking, the difference between the three is in their “plasticity.” Stem cells are what are called precursor cells. If you put a stem cell next to a heart cell, or a lung cell, or a neural cell, the stem cell will turn into one of those cells.

    Fetal stem cells are thought to be more plastic than the other types, and are thought to be able to turn into those other types of cells more easily, but adult and cord-blood stem cells are thought to be successfully usable in this fashion as well.

    The reason we care is that neurons do not regenerate like other cells. Since the body cannot regrow spines, brains, and optical nerves as well as other tissue, it is thought that stem cells can be injected instead of natural growth. Again, to repeat, Mike May did not have optical nerve damage, he had corneal damage. Medically speaking, this is an enormous difference.

    In this case, it seems stem cells also may have a role to play in tissue transplants. Remember, this was not a “stem cell transplant operation” as such, but a corneal transplant, which actually happens all the time. The stem cells helped the body not reject the corneas, as had happened in the past.

    The biggest irony of this entire debate is that progressives and liberals, who are blasting GW Bush over his stand on fetal stem cell research, are so adept at lecturing the world that issues are always “complex,” but in this case are over-simlifying the issue, conflating fetal, cord, and adult stem cells into one issue, and trying to scare the public over Bush’s stance.

    Whether Bush’s stance is good or bad, science will say. There is no clear-cut evidence at this time to suggest that fetal cells are more successful than cord or adult cells. It may well be that adult stem cells, which GW Bush’s restrictions do not prevent in any fashion whatsoever, will provide the solution to Chris Reeve’s problem.

    It’s astonishing to me that merely showing sympathy for the religious side of the debate, and recognizing that a good percentage of the USA’s citizen population are uncomfortable with fetal research, is enough to be burned at the stake. I hope the solution to Christian fundamentalism is not what someone in another thread here at Hit & Run cleverly called “atheist fundamentalism.”

  19. Thank you oracle Hovig. I understand the need for clarification, but isn’t the fact that all previous attempts to transplant corneas failed and adult stem cells made the transplant possible a fairly exciting and important story? I know the stem cells didn’t cure a “Steve Wonder” blindness (is that the new medical term? Is there also a “Ray Charles” blindness), but it’s still a pretty pimp story.

  20. Hovig — Really and truly, I linked to this story because I found his descriptions very interesting. Would have done likewise if the procedure involved a transplant from a baby goat, or the repeated chanting of “Bloody Mary,” or just a lot of heavy blinking.

  21. Dakota: I dunno, I don’t really think so, considering the operation actually occured almost four years ago, in Nov 1999. Socially interesting, personally interesting, culturally interesting, maybe, but not medically.

    I think it’ll be more interesting when they can do kidneys, hearts, lungs, and livers this way. I also think it’ll be more interesting when we can say the word “stem cell” and people don’t start screaming bloody murder.

  22. Matt – Thanks for the reply. I agree it was an interesting story, but you entitled your entry “The Human Miracle of Stem Cells,” which I think is a bit of hyperbole, if not an inaccuracy. It’s debatable whether the hyperbole is yours, the Guardian’s, or Mr May’s, but I think the comments above demonstrate that despite many years of stories on the issue, “stem cells” are still gravely misunderstood. I hate to sound kooky, but I blame the media, just a bit, for oversimplifying the issue.

  23. Hovig John Heghinian,

    I have no idea if the media has oversimplified the issue – isn’t the media always accused of doing that – but there is plenty of material out there, including technical writing, which would clear things up if one was only interested enough to look it up. Ronald Bailey has posted lots of good stuff right here on just the distinctions you so thoughtfully made to help out the dummies amongst us. Here is an article which describes what research into embryonic stem cell – notice i didnt use “fetal” – could potentially achieve and why.
    https://reason.com/9912/fe.rb.petri.shtml
    So lets not pretend that the controversy & difference in opinion here is merely a function of ignorance.

    You wrung quite a bit of profit denouncing anti-anti-fundementalism so let’s pursue that here. The reason why the fundementalist attitude is so irritating is that having objected to all kinds of medical procedures – vaccines, anaesthesia, in-vitro – they get away with never saying they are sorry for having opposed it in the first place and now actually avail of every advance. Anybody want to bet that its somehow going to be different with stem cells ? Embryonic or otherwise since, who knows, its very difficult to predict what kind of religious objections might be invented against adult stem cell work.

  24. While HJH is correct about this being less than a big deal with regard to the stem cell usage, it is hardly without medical signifigance. This is only the 8th subject with recovery from long term blindness to be studied extensively, and one of the first to have no sight during much of his formative years (he lost one eye and was blinded in the other by a chemical explosion at the age of 3 1/2). This coupled with current neuroimaging techniques has given researchers very valuable insight into the effects of long-term visual deprivation in the human brain. As the ability to restore sight improves and more people find themselves in this type of situation, a better understanding of effect to the visual centers in the brain will help tremendously. There’s more on what they found in the latest Nature Neuroscience.

    http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/neuro/journal/v6/n9/abs/nn1102.html

    With regard to a religious argument against adult stem cell use for medical purposes, there already is one, it’s called christian science. They’ve got a reading room in every major city in the US and will be more than happy to give you info to read on the position.

  25. To Sean: Great info! Very interesting.

    To the anonymous poster at 07:13 PM: You’ll find no disagreements from me.

    Stem cell research is productive, and ideological dogma is distateful from both sides, but I don’t think you’ll find more than half the population truly supports fetal research, and I don’t think it’s fair for me to be excoriated for pointing this out, or for noting that GW Bush’s executive mandate, while arguably undesirable for science, was not as draconian as his detractors wish to believe.

    You were wise to distinguish embryonic research from fetal research, and I would wager it is not as controversial as fetal research, but any way you slice it, I think the media are treating this issue with sloppiness.

    I disagree that adult stem cell research is widely objectionable. With all due respect to the comments damning GW Bush for banning fetal cell research in this thread above, and also the single scientific opinion quoted in the Reason article you posted, Bush didn’t ban adult cell research, nor did any major group demand he do so. I’m not interested in arguing for or against fringe opinions or posing strawman arguments. (Or receiving them! 🙂

  26. Fascinating story, especially his observations as a newly sighted person. The obvious joy in being able to play catch with his child was heart warming, to say the least. Almost enough to put my cynicism on hold. Almost.

  27. This isn’t a miracle, its science and technology (you know, tools created by humans, not some God-created affront to the natural world). I wish people would stop confusing the two.

  28. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  29. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  30. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  31. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  32. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  33. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  34. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  35. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  36. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

  37. I am a 60 year old man who has Parkinson’s disease. I am doomed to die an agonizing death if someone can’t come up with a cure. It appears to me that the answer to numerous medical problems is right here in adult stem cell therapy AKA regenerative medicine. This is not a God Vs Evil issue, its just plain science and new technology. God doesn’t intervene in earthly things, we are in charge of our own destinies. Lets Go for it!!!

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