Thursday, August 31, 2006

Science Triumphs and a Science Tragedy.

The triumphs...

There were three pieces of good news in Reuters this morning (I tried linking them but they wouldn't work - I think the addresses are too long):

(i) the state of California in the US is set to become a world leader in reducing carbon emissions which will put pressure on the rest of the world to do the same.

"The success of our system will be an example for other states and nations to follow as the fight against climate change continues," the governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said.

I expect I am being naive, but this sounds extremely positive to me.

(ii) the ozone layer is recovering and should be completely intact again by the middle of the century. Hodmandod Senior has had a small hand in this, I think. Part of his work over the years as a research chemist has been to find an alternative to chlorofluorocarbon solvents for dry cleaning - as these were one of the culprits thought to be involved in causing the hole in the first place. This, I hope will mean there will be fewer deaths from skin cancer, especially in the southern hemisphere where the hole is larger.

(iii) implanting electrodes into the brains of people with Parkinsons has alleviated symptoms of some Parkinson's patients. However reading into this a little more I see that half of the authors (including the lead author) of the report (published in New England Journal of Medicine) have some financial connection with the company that provides the therapy, which I guess may, but not necessarily, influence results, especially if the results involve a subjective aspect - which I think this one must.

There was a 25% improvement in symptoms, the surgery cost $50 000- $60 000, and one person died due to surgical complications, while another died due to suicide. Another person in the study, a patient in a comparative group taking just the drugs died because he had a psychotic episode while driving a car.

Another possible cure for Parkinsons might come, one day, from stem cell therapy, but this is something still in its infancy and will not be available for many years, if it comes at all.

...and the tragedy.

Last year I started investigating stem cell therapy for a writing project I had in mind, but I didn't get the grant and so I had to abandon it. However I saw my proposed collaborator, an expert in stem cell therapy, on the BBC website yesterday in a dismal report from BBC newsnight . As I understand it there are not yet any established therapies involving stem cells but even so a South African businessman and his ex-model lover have succeeded in duping some vulnerable and desperate people of thousands of pounds for a bogus stem cell therapy. Their middle-man was a Dutch doctor who injected stem cells (which had been harvested for research purposes)into patients who had travelled from the UK and Australia to his clinic in the Netherlands. One was a woman with multiple schlerosis, and the other was a child who was suffering from the complications of having meningitis.

They were hoping for miracle-cures. They trusted the doctor - that is what we all tend to do, after all - but there are charlatans even within the medical profession. Injecting stem cells in this way - just shoving them under the skin and hoping for the best - is not likely to have any beneficial effect whatsoever according to one expert oon the programme. In fact it can do harm. When the company that harvested the stem cells heard about what was happening to the cells that they had described as 'unsuitable for use on animals' heard what was happening their first question was - has anyone died yet? The child did suffer a severe allergic reaction to his treatment, while the MS patient developed a rash. Since the programme was aired on the 29th August several other people have written to Newsnight describing how they too have been duped. The reporter, Susan Watts, seems to have been both courageous and persistent in her investigations and has probably prevented many other people from wasting great sums of money and harbouring false hopes.

The businessman (who used to be an attorney) and his partner live in a large house in Cape Town with views over the bay. In stories like this I try and see it from every point of view - I suppose it is the creative writer in me. I can imagine being greedy for money and justifying my greed with the delusion that I was helping people. If I were determinedly and deliberately ignorant I suppose I could look at the hopes for stem cell therapy and convince myself I was turning those hopes into a treatment. I think I can get into that businessman's head.

But the head I can't enter is the doctor's. He had examined the cells and could see they were fine. Maybe they were, although no one can see chemicals that have been added to the mixture unless they look for them, but that really is not the point. The point is that this therapy won't work. A doctor cannot claim ignorance and competence at the same time. Although he has stopped injecting cells on behalf of the South African businessman he is still carrying out similar therapies of his own. He is duping unfortunate desperate people and I can't understand why he isn't being stopped.

LATER NOTE: Sorry if you happened to read this earlier and it made no sense - in fiddling around trying to get the links (for a whole hour) I managed to get rid of some of my text as well.


Blogger Anne S said...

The issue of stem cell research is very much in the news in Australia at present as the PM has, in an attempt to avert suspicion that he is losing it, has granted his party a conscience vote on the issue.

The debate has become very muddy, with the Minister of Health raving on about stem cell research leading to human cloning. He has been criticised for using his position to influence the outcome through such inflammatory statements.

We wait to see the outcome of this debate.

Thu Aug 31, 12:51:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anne: That sounds pretty ridiculous to me. I am not certain that issues such as stem cell research should be left to people such as politicians to debate. It is such a very complicated subject I think that it needs to be carefully studied by a committee of people including religious leaders, scientists, philosophers and doctors for them to come up with guidelines and regulations.

The scientist I was talking to said that the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, has come up with an excellent report on the issues involved.

Thu Aug 31, 03:18:00 pm  
Blogger Tammy Brierly said...

I feel for those desperately seeking cures and being duped :( I pray someday a cure will come from proper stem cell research.

Wed Sept 06, 12:01:00 am  

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