August 15th, 2006 16:54 EST
Stem Cell's- A Personal Issue
On the day I was suppose to depart for Abuja, Nigeria last month with the Leon Sullivan Foundation, my cousin Audrey Livingston died in Johnson City, Tenn. She was 47 years old and had been living with scleroderma, a chronic connective tissue disease, for eight years. Of course, I cancelled my trip to Africa to be with my family in Tennessee.
For several years, I had watched as my cousins extremities were removed one by one. First, a finger, then another finger, then one toe and another toe and still more fingers and still more toes. In the end, she could hardly grip a fork, but she never lost her grip on life. As much as my cousin went through, she was always cheering us up, not the other way around. I've never seen anyone go through so much without ever complaining. But that was Audrey, that was my cousin.
And she didn’t let her illness prevent her from being places she felt she had to be. Over the past year alone, she and I have lost three uncles on the same side of the family. Audrey attended every funeral because, above all else, she was a person with a deep love for her family.
It took a long time for doctors to diagnose Audrey’s illness as scleroderma or systematic sclerosis. It is a rare disease for which there is no cure. According to information distributed by the Scleroderma Foundation and the Mayor Clinic, it is a progressive disease that leads to the hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues, the fibers that provide the bodys framework and support.
In addition to thickening and hardening of your skin, scleroderma can cause your skin to lose its elasticity and become shiny as it stretches across underlying bone, the Mayo research states.
Essentially, the body’s immune system turns against itself by overproducing collagen, a fibrous type of protein that makes up the body’s connective tissue. Unfortunately, there is no treatment to stop the overproduction of collagen.
But if a cure is to be found, it could well come from stem cell research. And that’s why President Bush’s decision to veto stem cell research legislation is personal with me.
After doctors in Johnson, City, Tenn. failed to accurately identify Audrey’s disease, they sent her to the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., where she was finally diagnosed as having scleroderma.
Not surprisingly, Duke is now leading a national study to test whether stem cell transplants can reconstruct defective immune systems. If successful, the study could reverse the disease rather than merely alleviating the symptoms. It is funded by a $20 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Joseph Shanahan, a Duke University rheumatologist, told reporters that investigators wanted to determine whether the immune system can be suppressed for a year in order to take control of the disease or whether it’s necessary to repopulate the immune system with purified stem cells.
As part of this fascinating study, patients are given drugs that stimulate the release of stem cells into their bloodstream. Stem cells are then extracted from the blood, processed and stored for later use. Chemotherapy and radiation are used to destroy the immune system, which is then repopulated or replaced by the patient’s stored blood stems.
To be fair, President Bush does not oppose all stem research and it appears that he might not object to the research being done at Duke, the kind that would have directly benefited Audrey. However, he vetoed a bill passed by both the House and Senate � his first and only veto after more than five years in office � authorizing certain types of stem cell research.
Although the proposed legislation would have prohibited federal funding for the creation of embryos solely for research, it would have allowed research using embryos stored at federal fertility clinics and donated by couples who no longer need them.
Research posted on the site of the National Institutes of Health reflects the excitement medical experts have about this new research.
Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body, basic information on the site observes.
Serving as a sort of repair system for the body, they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells as along as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell or a red blood cell, or a brain cell.
For those who claim to be pro-life, this is an opportunity to prove it. It won't bring back my cousin Audrey, but it might spare some families needless pain.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com. To contact Curry or to book him for a speaking engagement, go to his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.