Of Toilets, Planned Parenthood, And Life-Saving Cell Research
Neil deGrasse Tyson, perhaps our most articulate spokesman about what science is, outlines what it is in two relatively short sentences in his Huffington Post blog: “Science distinguishes itself from all other branches of human pursuit by its power to probe and understand the behavior of nature on a level that allows us to predict with accuracy, if not control, the outcomes of events in the natural world. Science especially enhances our health, wealth and security, which is greater today for more people on earth than at any other time in human history.” Science is now tackling two major human problems on the face of the earth: (1), Providing toilets for the 2.4 billion people who have no toilets and have to urinate and defecate in the wide-open spaces, and (2), Solving genetic problems in embryos that will help us treat some of the 7,000 syndromes and rare diseases we are confronted with today.
About two weeks ago Thursday the United Nations proclaimed World Toilet Day because poor sanitation practices dramatically increase the risk of illness and malnutrition among children, and one-third of the women in the world use the fields and streets to defecate—where they face disease, shame, and assault and rape from predators who lurk near these places. Over 1.5 million children die of diarrhea every year mainly because of water contaminated by human waste. Composting plastic toilets have been developed with funds from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation but they still cost $300 each, a sum which many poor countries can’t afford. Hundreds of them are now being used in South America and Africa, but it will take decades to get them into standard use. Culture sometimes interferes with sanitation. Some Muslim sects believe that the “handling” of feces and urine is “unholy.” (Does the holy body create unholy stuff? Can philosophers answer that question?) Other cultures say that if you or parts of your body return to earth that earth can never be used again. That would take care of any oak trees grown from “green” cemeteries where bodies wrapped only in shrouds are buried. (What would you do with diseased body parts removed during surgical operations? Rocket them into space?)
Of Fetal and Stem Cells, Abortion, And The Intriguing Field Of Genetics
Cell research has been carried on by major universities and hospital groups for about a half-century, often funded by government grants. In 2014 alone The National Institutes of Health appropriated $76 million in fetal tissue grants to more than 50 universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and the University of California. Some have been working on diabetes, myopia, and diseases such as muscular dystrophy for many years. Because of threats of violence from pro-life groups most researchers do not want to talk about their progress because they use fetal and human tissue in their medical trials. The most controversial are embryonic stem cells which come from days-old embryos. These cells can morph into any cell in the body, whether blood, brain, bone, or organ when developed into specific tissue types. Adult stem cells are also “usable,” but are not as “flexible” because they contain immune responses already developed that may end up being life-threatening to transplant patients. Abortion clinics do sell fetal tissues to research facilities, but clinics cannot profit from sales because of laws passed by Congress during less partisan times. They may charge for processing and shipping costs. Now pro-life politicians are foaming at the mouth and writhing in protest for political reasons over the science that may save lives—or the life of their child or grandmother. Security guards have become a priority at research facilities. The big kerfuffle over Planned Parenthood tends to hide the fact that its health care centers are an essential part of the nation’s safety net for poor women-and men- who can’t afford insurance or treatment at hospitals and clinics. Planned Parenthood serves 2.7 million poor people each year. It provides family planning, reproductive counseling, and contraception to 2.1 million women, performs 400,000 cervical cancer screenings, supervises 500,000 breast exams, and conducts over 4.5 million tests and various treatments for sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV.
Dr. Sheldon Miller, scientific director of the National Eye Institute, says fetal tissue is “a uniquely rich source” of the stem cells that may grow replacements for parts of the body that have failed. He says fetus eye tissue is currently being used in an attempt to find treatment for degenerative diseases of the retina of the eye, a major cause of vision loss in older people. Other researchers working on diseases of muscles report that fetal tissue is important in studying if we can regenerate tissues to repair or replace muscles. Fetal tissue can be used for research only with the approval of the woman having the abortion. Fetal tissue is also used in studies of leukemia, Hodgkins lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease. Fetal tissue has been used to develop the polio and measles vaccines, so important in controlling and eliminating these diseases around the world.
Maybe There Is Some Real Meaning To The Phrase “When Pigs Fly!”
Of the known 7,000 rare diseases, the Food and Drug Administration has approved only 280 treatments. We have a lot of cell work to do. As an example, over 400,000 U.S. citizens die from lung cancer each year with only 2,000 saved by transplants. Genetic researcher J. Craig Venter is working with United Therapeutics Corporation to develop pig lungs that will be compatible with the human body. We share about 80% of our genes with pigs, so Venter is attempting to discover which genes would have to be changed in pigs so transplanted lungs would not be rejected by the human body. Now transplanted human lungs are often rejected by humans. If pigs could grow “human” lungs that would not be rejected, pigs could be used to grow lung transplants—or other parts—as replacements in humans. It is scientifically possible, but the research requires a lot of fetal tissue to discover which genes must be changed.
Females born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome may have had their problems solved by a research team at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center working with the victim’s own genes. This is a rare genetic disorder where the vagina and uterus may be missing or undeveloped. In a small trial of girls ranging ages 13-18 vaginal organs constructed and grown from cells taken from their genitals were implanted after six weeks of growth. The body gradually replaced this structure with a totally new organ made for each person that continues to show normal function after eight years. The patients even report satisfactory sexual function. Dr. Anthony Atala, the chief researcher, reports: “This pilot study is the first to demonstrate that vaginal organs con be constructed (from cells) in the lab and used successfully in humans. This may represent a new option for patients who require vaginal reconstructive surgeries.” Other research teams have constructed windpipes and larynxes from human cells and have transplanted them in cancer patients.
How About An Injection Of Cells From The Benjamin Button Jellyfish To End Your Life Like A Baby?
Over 90 years ago F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story about a character named Benjamin Button who aged in reverse. Born an old man, he later died in infancy. Alas, in 1988 a marine biologist discovered a jellyfish that grew younger and younger until it ended up a polyp. Researchers immediately began work identifying jellyfish cells to see if they could be transplanted to humans. Biologist Shin Kubota says, “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.” Can you imagine Donald Trump running for president every four years until he ends up wearing a diaper— filled with the wisdom of ages? We currently have seven children in the world who have a rare genetic disorder called Syndrome X. Layla Qualls of Oklahoma is one of them. At age three she weighs 19 pounds and looks like a 9-month-old baby. Researchers are trying to discover the genes which cause the syndrome. If the gene is not found and replaced she will probably never walk or be able to do things little children can do. Another rare genetic mutation eliminates all sense of pain. People with this gene mutation suffer broken bones, burns, and life-threatening injuries—and don’t know it until they don’t heal. Scientists have discovered the gene so there is a chance this dangerous mutation can be altered.
When The Good Doctor Yelled, “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” He Wasn’t Kidding
Oldsters will remember the 1956 movie “Lust for Life” starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh, the not-so-securely-tied portrait and landscape painter of the 19th Century. His art now sells for hundreds of millions of dollars, the latest being his portrait of Dr. Gachet that sold for $152 million. In a famous scene Kirk-Vincent cuts off his ear in a whorehouse in Arles, France. Significant sexual details of this incident in December of 1888 are lacking. He later immortalized the act by creating a 1889 self-portrait with bandaged ear. To make a long story short, we now have his ear back. You might remember that Vincent’s brother Theo was a sane one in the family, often acting as his brother’s agent—and caretaker. Theo’s great-great grandson has supplied the genetic cells to scientists to grow a Van Gogh ear. It is currently on display in Germany and may be taken on a world tour, starting in New York. Diemert Strebe, a German artist, is responsible for the “resurrection” of one of the really famous body parts in the art world. Really strange things can be done with fetal and stem cells.
A New System Of Identification For Replacing Genes In Any Animal
A November 16th New Yorker article by Michael Specter titled “The Gene Hackers” describes a new system called CRISPR that can replace genes in an any animal (that includes us). Researchers have come up with gene replacements that can correct sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, eye cataracts, and can destroy HIV receptors that can lead it to infiltrate the human immune system. Japanese researchers have used CRISPR to alter genes that control how fast tomatoes ripen. Many researchers are working on identifying genes that cause Alzheimer’s, dementia, diabetes, autism, and cancer. This research gets complicated because hundreds of our thousands of genes may be involved. As an example, Huntington’s disease, a brain disorder that causes uncontrolled movements, emotional problems, and loss of thinking ability, is caused by a single gene. Other diseases may require the replacement of dozens or hundreds of genes. Research biologists are trying to answer three basic questions: (1) What does each gene do? (2) How do we find the genetic mutations that make us sick? (3) How can we overcome them? With recent increases in autism among the young, studies indicate that autism may be caused by a few malfunctioning neurons out of the trillions of neurons in every brain. The human body and its organs are quite complicated.
Malaria kills millions in Africa and other tropical zones each year. Researchers are working on a gene mutation that will block the parasite responsible for malaria. As mosquitoes do not live very long, the gene mutation would reduce the number of eggs produced by malaria-carrying mosquitoes; consequently the malaria parasites could be wiped out rather quickly. Today, hundreds of millions of people wear glasses because they suffer from myopia. We can now treat myopia with gene therapy. The possibility of eliminating vision aids in this century exists. Gene therapy has the potential of lifting huge burdens off the backs of the human race. And then there’s the fascinating case of the woman who had twins minutes apart—but could only get child support from one of the fathers………..