While the newswires crackle with Dick Cheney's latest display of cowardice and Sarah Palin's victimhood, the most important event of 2010 will hardly be mentioned: the dawn of the age of regenerative medicine, a new era for healthcare, and an even greater imperative for healthcare reform.
Sometime this year, ophthalmologists in the United Kingdom -- where, we might recall, CT-scanners, MRI-scanners, and monoclonal antibodies were 'invented' -- will inject human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) into the retina of a patient suffering macular degeneration, a leading cause of near-blindness in the elderly. Currently there are nearly 2 million people in the US with the disease, expected to grow to 3 million in just 10 years.
Studies with hESCs in an animal model of the disease have shown improved vision. When the first patient from the UK study demonstrates improved vision, the era of regenerative medicine will have been launched. Oh, yes, by the way, the UK also 'invented' in vitro fertilization, now a routine procedure worldwide, and from which the source -- frozen embryos that are to be discarded -- of the hESCs arises.
Of course, the UK need not have been first with hESC therapy, except that the US was saddled for 8 years with George Bush and for 6 of those years with the radical rightwing Republican Congress who not only divined that hESCs derived after a certain date in August 2001 were ungodly, but (and here is where the Republican Congress shone so brightly) passed two bills in the House making all hESC research illegal and authorizing the arrest of any US citizen who traveled abroad for hESC treatment. Just a wonderful crowd, weren't they? And, so focused on terrorism, weren't they? [Anyone who wants to remove the filibuster from the US Senate ought to consider what would have happened had the Republican Senate that had more than 50 votes, had blessed us with similar divine guidance].
Also this year, in the United States, patients with spinal cord injuries that would destine them for lives in wheelchairs will receive an injection of hESCs into their injured spinal cords. Studies of hESCs in animal models of spinal cord injury have shown remarkable recovery of function. When the first of these human patients wiggles his toes, the prospect of fulfilling Christopher Reeve's vision of walking again will become closer to reality -- unfortunately, the hypocritical radical religio-politics of the "naughts" helped delay it so that Christopher himself could not live to experience it.
Further, but not too much further, on the horizon will be hESCs transformed to pancreas cells to cure the diabetes of childhood, help treat the diabetes of adulthood, and, together, reduce the projected costs of Medicare by about 20-25%. That ain't hay. That will be followed by hESCs that have been transformed into heart-muscle cells to repair the damage of heart attack.
These breakthroughs will make healthcare reform even more important than it is now. The human suffering relieved will be incalculable -- and even less defensible making access dependent on financial status. Moreover, the costs incurred from not treating people with chronic diseases definitively are so prohibitive that it will be fiscal disaster not to have a system in place that guarantees access to the best treatments for all.
Caution: the early studies may fail. Phase I trials are not designed to show therapeutic effect, but rather to establish the limits of safety so that the next stage of study, phase II, may be designed to try to show that therapeutic effect at safe doses. Moreover, there are likely to be as-yet unknown problems that these early applications of regenerative therapy will reveal that have to be improved upon.
But, 2010 will mark the beginning of the end of some of the more painful, tragic and debilitating conditions afflicting mankind -- -and, we will save trillions to boot!
The 'naughts' were a big fat zero; the 'tweens' can be truly transformational.
Of course, all that may be stunted again if we re-elect a Republican Congress determined, for their twisted version of the grace of god, to consign people to hell on earth.
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