Thursday, October 13, 2005

Compare the outrageous pressure from doctors for parents to abort disabled baby (who incidentally turns out to be healthy) with pioneering fetal surgery and work using stem cells from amniotic fluid to cure congenital disabilities

A couple are furious that they were put under repeated pressure by doctors at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital to abort their baby as the baby was supposed to have holoprosencenphaly and doctors said he wouldn’t survive for longer than an hour, but the diagnosis was completely wrong and their son, Harry, is now 15 months old and is learning to walk. The story was reported in the Daily Mail, “Baby defies doctors who says he’ll be deformed” and previously the Evening Standard in Norwich “The baby I was advised to abort” . The story is horrifying on every level – not only that the parents were put under pressure to abort, and doctors gave them dud information, that babies with disabilities are considered better off dead, but most of all it is horrifying because of the crude pro-abortion mentality, where termination of the child is considered preferable to sustaining the baby and hoping and trying every possible means to save the child’s life using the best medical methods available. In the last two weeks there are two particular causes of hope.

Only a few days ago, scientists reported that they had discovered a way to use stem cells found in the amniotic fluid to treat babies either during pregnancy or after birth and correct congenital diseases. It was reported to the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting in Washington and are seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration to carry out clinical trials and could be applicable to conditions like spina bifida. (see CORE Spina bifida may be cured using amniotic stem cells

Only a couple of weeks ago, Newsweek did a feature length article about surgery on an unborn child who had hypoplastic left heart syndrome by doctors at Children's Hospital Boston
The child was born completely free of the condition is now a healthy little one year old. This is obviously a different condition from the baby in Norwich who was nearly aborted, but the pattern is the same – applying knowledge and perfecting medical practice till it becomes common practice because doctors do their best for their patients and develop techniques which save lives.

As Newsweek points out, “Thirty years ago, babies diagnosed with HLHS were doomed to die within the first days to weeks of life. Today, thanks to earlier detection through ultrasound and postnatal surgery, the majority of the 1,500-plus HLHS babies born every year now survive; the oldest are in their early 20s.” Fetal surgery is obviously difficult and involves two patients – the mother and the child – but it is a sophisticated medicine that treats the baby appropriately as a patient rather than terminating life. At the very least diagnosis of a condition during pregnancy should enable forward planning so doctors can treat the child immediately after birth by assembling a team of experts, including obstetricians, pediatric cardiologists and cardiac surgeons to collaborate on the best treatment for the newborn child. What a far cry from the collaboration to terminate life! Using the most sophistocated techniques to diagnose and treat the sick is surely the only acceptable medical approach.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

It's dishonest to report on medical research and fail to mention international excitement surrounding umbilical cord banking, placental research and adult stem cell research

The media nearly always refer to stem cell research, even when they are talking exclusively about stem cells taken from embryos, and fail completely to mention the existence of adult and umbilical stem cell research. It was therefore disappointing, but not surprising to see the subtitle in the The Guardian's report on embryonic stem cells that "Members could force the EU to stop funding work on stem cells". For anyone who actually follows stem cell research (and I mean stem cell research, not embryonic stem cell research)
not only is it entirely reasonable on democratic principles for NO EU money to be spent on embryonic stem cell research, since many member states expressly prohibit embryo research, and therefore cannot morally be expected to fund (imagine if the UK was expected to fund some practice we prohibit!), but for anyone aware of the alternatives to embryo rsearch, it was also much less of a significant revelation. Non-embryonic sources of stem cells are proving immensely exciting (see for example the Boston Globe article only a few days before which drew attention to the quiet pioneering work of the Vacanti brothers into diabetes and spinal cord damage, and their point that adult stm cells are preferable technically to embryonic stem cells). It is a reasonable question to put that if the investment is in non-controversial sources of stem cells and the research can continue without the destruction of human embryos, why is that a bad thing?

But can the majority of the readers have been expected to know that the article only told half the story? Nowhere in the article was the existence of adult stem cell research even mentioned, nor the fact that stem cells obtained ethically from bone marrow, blood, fat, skin, hair, or umbilical cord blood, the placenta, or amniotic fluid around the baby are proving immensely promising, especially since umbilical cord blood and placenta make use of material that is otherwise wasted. Since the article was primarily about investment and Californian investment was referred to into embryonic stem cells, it would have been appropriate to mention that there are moves in the States and India to put serious investment into umbilical cord banking, see for example CORE: World's largest umbilical cord bank to be set up in India, to provide stem cells for transplant surgeons globally:

"The world's largest umbilical cord blood bank is to be set up in Mumbai, India through a $20 million investment from the South Korean biotech company, Histostem, and aims to provide stem cells for transplant surgeons globally. By creating similar banks in Mexico, Australia and Europe, and linking them, Histostem expects to offer histocompatibility leucocyte antigen matched stem cells for every patient around the world. The umbilical cord blood stem cells will also be used for research into treatments for diabetes and spinal cord repair."

Only the day before this article was in the Guardian, Japanese researchers were reported in The Japanese Times to have perfected a new technique to reproduce umbilical cord stem cells at a rate that is four times faster than previous techniques. (see also CORE)

According to recent research there are 300 million epithelial cells in each placenta. Where was the analysis of placental stem cell research and the work being done to make use of this immense source that is otherwise just thrown away, and may in any case provide a source of compatible tissue? CORE news: Major advances using placental stem cells

Linda Nordling in the Guardian concludes that: "In his budget speech last spring, Gordon Brown tasked an independent group with drawing up a 10-year plan to make the UK the world's best place to do, and capitalise on, stem cell research. Over the summer, things have been quiet. But the group's report is making its way to the Treasury in time for this autumn's pre-budget report as we speak. It sure smells like money. So while the stem cell debate rages on in Europe, researchers in this country should focus on one question this autumn. Not whether, or even when, but simply how much?"

Even a cursory examination of how much is ignored in this article suggests that a much better understanding and public debate has to begin about the different sources of stem cells before taxpayers money is flung irresponsibly into unethical, controversial and perhaps even pointless research, that could simply be done better using umbilical cord blood and other adult stem cells.

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