Thursday, December 16, 2010

Save Those Stem Cells!

Having an oncologist in the delivery room with his wife can be interesting. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, told this story about the birth of his first child to NPR's Terry Gross on Nov. 17:
I'm trying to cut the umbilical cord, but on the flipside of my mind, it's almost a split of my right brain and my left brain, and here I am in sort of the most glorious moment of my life, the birth of my child, and on one side of my brain I'm saying to myself, I have got to harvest her umbilical cord blood cells because these cells are useful in transplantations for kids who have leukemia....

[T]he tragedy of it [is that the umbilical cord is] often flushed down the sink and often not collected all. I think, you know, we absolutely need to have better centralized banking facilities free of charge which allow us to bank these cells because kids with leukemia can benefit from cord blood transplantation and they need these - these are very precious cells....

[T]hey contain blood-forming stem cells that can go into the blood and create new blood. And they are so precious because they can be transplanted into another child and give rise to the blood system of the child and you can therefore eliminate the leukemia. And if you eliminate leukemia you can often eliminate the normal - the child's blood stem cells and you can replace it with the cord blood from another child, and that's why they're incredibly precious.
The fuss over embryonic stem cells has died down since March 2009, when President Obama overturned the Bush administration's ban on the use of federal funds for new stem cells lines. While I favored the Obama policy, it bothered me that, during that lengthy debate, the coloration of being ideological was applied only to the pro-life side. And now we learn that hospitals have been flushing billions upon billions of stem cells down the drain that could help patients immeasurably, and without so much as a peep from either megaphone.

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