Stem cells are all the rage. And why not? There is the potential to generate tissues of all kinds (kidney, brain, eyes etc.) from these undifferentiated cells, and to transplant those tissues into humans in order to treat disease. During national elections, the analogy would be to turn uncommitted voters into Democrats or Republicans and then to move them into districts where they’re needed to boost the Electoral College count. Stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can grow up to be anything you choose by design. An uninformed, unenlightened, unfeeling cell can one day become President of the United States- oops, I mean a kidney!
But their promise comes with great risk (see POTUS, above). As a sad example, three very unfortunate women with partial loss of vision due to macular degeneration recently went to a Florida clinic where stem cells were injected into their eyes in an unproven treatment, and that resulted in their total blindness! The use of experimental treatments without adequate studies will only increase, now that stem-cell clinics are popping up like spring flowers, and funding for the National Institutes of Health falling like autumn leaves. In the current climate (pun intended) of denying scientific data, turning to “alternate facts,” and stigmatizing knowledge and expertise as elitist, careful assessment of the risks and benefits will diminish, while opportunistic stem-cell providers, like those in Florida, will thrive.
In my novel Fourth World, I’ve tried to keep a balanced view of stem-cell technology and genetic engineering, acknowledging both the gains and the pitfalls. Dr. Neelin, Professor of Recombinant Anatomy, has made a cause of pursuing what he calls quacks and quasi-sequencers. This is from a cadaver demonstration that Benn Marr attends:
Neelin held his right hand up. “I have one more example of quackery to show you. Bob, you see, was a victim not only of technical incompetence, but of outright fraud. Late in his life, he fell out of a Banyan tree while bird-watching in the district then known as Australia. He sustained a pelvic fracture and had to enlist the help of a migrant clinic in the back country, in order to regenerate the broken bone. They infused him with an unidentified stem cell, his diary shows, but the end result was only discovered at Bob’s post-mortem.” Neelin appeared to be rummaging around in Bob’s intestines. He finally pushed them toward the back with outstretched fingers, exposing two thin bony structures pointing upward from the pelvis. Puzzled interns frantically interrogated their datadiscs, again without success.
“Their treatment provided Bob, bless his original heart, with these two extraneous bones, which you see protruding here. These bones did nothing to help Bob with his pelvic fracture, but he would have found them useful- very useful indeed- had he… been… born… a…” Neelin paused expectantly.
“A kangaroo!” shouted Benn triumphantly.
Neelin released Bob’s intestines with a loud flop and whirled around to face Benn. “A kangaroo or any marsupial- excellent! Young man, you are the first intern in over two decades to recognize these as epipubic bones: their function is to support a marsupial’s pouch. Excellent!”