Friday, September 30, 2016

Stem Cells

It’s HubWeek in Boston.
What’s that?
That is Boston’s festival of science, medicine, art and technology.  They call it a Festival of the Future.  It is sponsored by Harvard, MIT, Mass General Hospital and the Boston Globe.  It lasts a week and has a few hundred events, ranging from breathing exercises to groups of scientists explaining their work to the general public.  
The “general public” in Boston and Cambridge is not very representative of what is usually considered the “general public.”  The group at these meetings are generally very informed, very intellectual, very scientifically involved. The people in the audience are either quite young and academic, or older and successful. The presenters and the audience at these meeting is also very diverse.  People from literally all over the world.  These are people who not only represent every continent and race, but often several continents and races are combined in one person (not very diverse politically, however).
The first event I went to was a discussion by a panel of doctors and scientists who are developing a cure, not just a treatment but a cure, for Type-1 diabetes.  They already have learned how to take stem cells and get them to evolve into the beta cells that make insulin.  In Type-1 diabetes these beta cells have been destroyed by the patient’s own auto-immune system. The presenters had formed a team from Harvard, The Joslin Clinic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a bio-tech laboratory that will do the manufacturing.  
They were working on a method to take a persons’ blood and from that produce stem cells with that person’s own DNA.  Then they then use the proper enzymes and RNA procedures to turn those stem cells into the kind of beta cells that make insulin.  These cells had been destroyed by the person’s own immune system, and thus created the Type-1 diabetes. The beta cells would then be injected into the person so they could again be able to naturally monitor their own glucose level and produce their own insulin to convert glucose into the kind of molecules the body needs for energy.  They have already done this for mice, and now they are beginning to see if it can work in humans.
Obviously, this is very complex.  The panel members were all excited about their progress and felt that they will be able to overcome the many obstacles they still face. They also made it clear that the availability of this treatment is still years away.
To me, this is one of the many examples of how we are entering into a new world.  We are on the brink of really understanding how we are constructed, and how we can get into the most basic structures and fix some of the flaws.  This is radically different from how medicine has worked until now, which has been to do our best to treat the symptoms. I have a close family member who has Type-1 diabetes and I see every day how she has to treat her symptoms.  It also feels as if the companies that have worked on the medicines she uses see her as much as a revenue stream as they do as a patient.  The treatments of so many diseases these days are designed to have a patient take medicine regularly to stay healthy, thereby keeping a life-long revenue stream going for the company.  There are very few actual “cures” for chronic diseases so far.  
I realize, in part, that is because finding the underlying, causal mechanism for any such disease is very complex, as these people made clear.  Still, the profit motive does play a role in what kind of medicine is developed.  The presenters on this panel are not paid by any drug company.  They work for universities and hospitals.  They had to fund their own company to make the supplies they will need, and that company will lose money for a long time.
Unfortunately, another factor that has delayed the progress of this group has been politics.  Again, it was objections from the right-wing, anti-scientific community.  As I said, these people feel that their methods are still five to ten years away from application.  But for the eight years of the Bush administration they were prevented from using any government money to develop stem cells.  Somehow Vice-President Cheney decided that developing stem-cells encouraged abortion and had to be stopped. Therefore people who were alive would have to continue to suffer and possibly die, due to the misconception that this was protecting some unborn zygotes.
Of course, it seems nuts and foolish.  But as a psychologist I know better than most people that logic and reason is not how any of us make decisions.  So much depends upon the people we hang around with, the information we get, the lens through which we view the world, and how comfortable we are with change.

A lot is changing now. We all feel it.  This is one, very positive example. But, as I said, we are beginning to deal with the basic building structures of humanity.  It is very complex.  That makes it all a bit unpredictable, exciting, yet also frightening.