As a scientist working on stem cells, I like to use sports analogies when
explaining my work to non-scientists. I have found this to be a very effective tool
for communicating about this very high tech, jargon-filled area. For example, I
might say that when delivering stem cells as a medical treatment we will need to
throw a perfect strike to get them in the right area of the body.
So you can imagine my frustration this year when sports stars started actually
getting stem cell treatments. You guys messed up my system, but then again you
might have messed up your own bodily systems with these potentially unsafe
Now when I talk about NY Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon, everything can get
very muddled indeed. You see, Colon went home to his native Dominican
Republic in 2011 to receive a non-FDA approved stem cell treatment for an arm
injury with the goal of throwing more and better strikes on the baseball diamond.
Did the stem cell tourism doctor throw a strike when he gave Colon his stem cell
treatment? Who knows. I'm just happy that so far there is no sign that he was
injured by the treatment.
Then there is the case of pro quarterback Peyton Manning, who flew to Europe
for his version of stem cell sports medicine to treat a troublesome neck injury.
Manning got the treatment and much the same as Colon, the stem cell medicine
in this case was not something proven by scientists to work or to even be safe.
This Hail Mary stem cell pass by Manning, intended to help him throw better
passes on the football field, likely encouraged a whole legion of other athletes,
both professional and children, to consider stem cell treatments for what is ailing
them. It won't be long before stem cells are given to a high school quarterback or
a little leaguer, which I'd consider a disastrous turn of events.
Speaking of Hail Mary's, the Vatican broke with 2 millennia of tradition and held
its first ever scientific conference on stem cells this fall in Rome. The meeting
was a strictly non-embryonic stem cell affair focused on the virtues of adult stem
cells only. The Vatican meeting featured cocktails and even a visit with the Pope
himself. Alas, I wasn't invited. You see embryonic stem cell researchers were
turned away at the gate, perhaps a fate also awaiting them after death with St.
Peter at that gate.
As it turns out, Hail Mary in Latin is Ave Maria, and Ave Maria (AVM)
Biotechnology was in the news related to stem cells. Ave Maria is a company run
by one of the two scientists who sued the government to stop federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Dr. Theresa Deisher, founder of Ave Maria, was
described by Nature magazine, as a 'stem cell crusader'. Deisher believes that
human embryonic stem cell research is immoral. Despite her efforts, for now,
scientists like me continue working on federally funded stem cell research
including embryonic stem cell work. This state of affairs was anything but a
foregone conclusion as over the past year various court rulings have made
federally funded embryonic stem cell research both legal and illegal.
Most recently, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled for the time being that the funding of
the research is legal, however clouding its future is the fact that Deisher and her
fellow litigant, Dr. James Sherley, have taken their appeal further and just this
past week the case was assigned to a 3-judge panel made up of arch
conservatives. Ultimately, the final Hail Mary or Ave Maria pass of this case will
be thrown to the U.S. Supreme Court within a few years.
In addition to federally funded research on embryonic stem cells, there are forprofit biotech companies working in this area as well, but even in this arena it
was a year for uncertainty and even turnovers. The biotech Geron, best known
for being the first company to start a clinical using human embryonic stem cells,
made big news when it punted its stem cell program. Geron gave up after
marching from the 1-yard line all the way to midfield, halfway through its clinical
trial. The reason? Reportedly, the research was too expensive and did not
provide significant hope of income in the near future. This financial decision was
a blow to the hopes of a lot of patients. Fortunately, Advanced Cell Technology,
the other biotech doing two human embryonic stem cell trials of its own,
continues in the area.
One of the biggest surprises of this year was that GOP hopeful, Texas Governor
Rick Perry, underwent a stem cell treatment himself. Perry, the proud owner of
the record for executing the most prisoners in one year (probably most of whom
were guilty) and a vigorous opponent of embryonic stem cell research,
underwent an adult stem cell treatment for a back injury. As luck would have it,
Perry got the treatment before it was FDA approved and there remains some
question as to its legality. After the fact, Perry and his doctor, who himself also
received a stem cell treatment, tried to lobby the Texas Medical Board to make
the procedure legal, at least at the state level. Oops. It took a lot of guts (literally)
for Perry to get the unapproved, potentially unsafe treatment using his own
abdominal fat stem cells. Still, I call it a fumble by Texas Guv Perry and ultimately
The Feds, including specifically the FBI regional office in Texas, have shown a lot
more interest in stem cells in 2011, which might make Perry Election Team 2012
more than a bit nervous. For years, companies both outside and within the U.S.
have been milking vulnerable patients of their money in exchange for dubious
stem cell treatments for a whole host of conditions. Such behavior within the U.S.
could in fact be illegal. Certainly the FDA and FBI think so as they arrested several parties on stem cell-related charges. In one case, stem cell purveyors
were arraigned in Vegas of all places for having injected many people with
placental milkshakes supposedly containing beneficial stem cells. Patients were
fooled into making such a gamble with their own health by the purveyors who
now potentially face federal prison time. If gambling is a sport, as some believe,
then receiving a non-FDA approved stem cell treatment may be the ultimate
high-risk game with one's own life, more akin to Russian Roulette than poker.
Finally, the extremists promoting the "Personhood" agenda had a bruising year,
but refused to forfeit. In arguably one of the most conservative states in the
nation, Mississippi voters defeated a Personhood measure that would have given
a one celled fertilized egg the same rights as a walking, thinking, breathing
Mississippian. In fact, the vote wasn't even close. Still, the 'Personhoods' as I like
to call them, remain a force to be reckoned with. They are organized, rolling in
dough from unknown sources, and resilient, reflected in their effort to put
Personhood to a vote in 'liberal' California in 2012, the home of the California
Stem Cell Agency, CIRM, which funds embryonic stem cell research amongst
other things. The Personhoods figure that even if they lose all these games with
the voters, they still win the tournament simply by getting their extremist views
more publicity and getting them into discussions. Don't underestimate these
folks, as they are tough opponents.
So ends another year in the wide world of stem cells leaving what will happen
next year very much up in the air. But certainly, we can expect more drama to
unfold in 2012 with more athletes, including some from the basketball court,
getting unapproved stem cell treatments. More court rulings. More scientific
advances and setbacks. More politicians renouncing embryonic stem cells in the
run-up to the elections as Newt Gingrich recently did. It seems appropriate to
quote ABC's now defunct program, Wide World of Sports, as the year in stem
cells draws to its close. That program would close out with an image of various
atheletes including one skier having a spectacular crash and in the background,
the famous phrase "The thrill of victory... and the agony of defeat". We can be
sure we'll see both in the stem cell area in 2012. Stay tuned.