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The Stem Cell Hope and Our Indefinitely Delayed Future

Alice Park’s new book The Stem Cell Hope, convinced me it is time to retire, “Where is my jetpack!?” once and for all. After reading her new book, Park will have you screaming, “Where are my stem cells?” from every rooftop.

Jetpacks are a puerile toy that we all know would be impractical, deadly, wasteful, polluting, and that will likely never, ever be built. So why do we keep rhetorically demanding them? The saying is supposed to encapsulate the sense of ennui we all feel when we look at depictions of the future from the ’50s. And the future is still broken. It’s the complaint of our disaffected era.

Well guess what, most of the depictions of the future from the ’50s were wrong. None of them showed personal computers or cell phones (let alone smartphones) or iPads. We now rue the fact that our country is lined with interstate highways and packed with cars, which was supposed to be the proof the future was here and amazing. Sure, whole factories are packed with robots, but none of us have a robot butler (Roomba withstanding). Yes, we have a space station. That is pretty amazing.

So what the hell are we complaining about? It sure as shit isn’t technology. That stuff is incredible. Yet, we know this version of the future is broken. But how?

Medicine. Health care. Diseases and death. These were supposed to be something the future could deal with. Why can’t it?

After reading The Stem Cell Hope, you’ll have an idea of why we’re living in the medical past among a technological future. Between the covers of her great new book, Alice Park explains how the promise of stem cells came to be trapped in a Kafkaesque maze of political posturing, fundamentalist ignorance, government bans, legal quagmires, and corporate greed. The Stem Cell Hope explains why our medical future has been indefinitely delayed and gives us a new question to ask of our delinquent future.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t so much review media so much as I analyze it. But for those of you interested, here is a three sentence review: Alice Park’s The Stem Cell Hope (Penguin) is an interesting portrayal of the personalities behind the experiments, legislation, and discoveries that have brought stem cell from fantastic theory to ethically perplexing fact. Her humanization of scientists and exploration of How Science Gets Done is excellent and are the highlight of the book. The neutral tone means this is a good read for someone who is already a stem cell proponent who likes the stories of science, and this is a perfect gift for the anti-stem cell person in your life.

You know the person I’m talking about. The one who is probably very excited about the recent flurry of paradoxical and moronic “Personhood” legislation and laments Obama’s dissolution of Bush’s ban on federal funding of new lines of research. Or maybe they’re just cautious and don’t like the idea of “experimenting on babies” and think “life begins at conception.” Before you write this off as a something-something liberal rant, let me ask you: do you have at least one friend or family member who has a traumatic injury, Alzheimer’s, ALS, MS, diabetes, and auto-immune disorder or has/had cancer? I bet you do. I certainly do!

What I want you to realize is this: your former friend’s beliefs are actively hurting and preventing the development of and research into cures for your friends that are suffering. Your friend who is squeamish about hurting an embryo is ok with harming millions of full-grown people who are alive and suffering now.

That is the horrible lesson buried among the pages of The Stem Cell Hope. That the original ban on stem cell’s was Bush’s attempt to appeal to his fanatical base. The man who helped him write that speech announcing the ban knew the science upside-down and inside-out so that he could most accurately articulate the party line, not so he could make the right ethical and scientific decision. How do we know this? Because Park wonderfully describes how the medical and scientific community independently and autonomously set up ethical panels to discuss and debate the ethics of cloning, stem cells, and embryonic research. Self-policing was instinctual. The rest of The Stem Cell Hope is a tale of the bravery and persistence of all the researchers who have helped us get as far as we are today.

Today – in the broken future-present – where stem cells, which we’ve known about and been studying for two decades, are still a nacent, surface-barely-scratched technology.

Our future-present’s inadequacies are underlined when the parts of sci-fi that seem, well, the most science fictional, are the medical technologies. The tricorder, the hypospray, and the surgery coffin from Prometheus tell us one thing over and over and over: “Modern Medicine” is undeserving of the title. We live in an era where we treat a sinus infection by flooding the entire body with antibiotics, we treat mental illness with massive payloads of chemicals to the entire brain, and attempt to deal with most diseases (cancer, Alzheimers, ALS, auto-immune, diabetes) by just treating the symptoms. We deal with malfunctioning organs by either cutting them out, in half, or replacing them with a dead person’s leftovers and then putting your immune system in a permanent coma. We deal with traumatic injury by giving people crutches, canes, and wheelchairs, technologies from the goddamn 1800’s. We deal, we cope, we put it into remission, we treat the symptoms, but we can’t cure shit.

Our cry, our demand, our plea, prayer, and desperate invocation should be, “Where is my stem cell cure?”

I can video chat with my sister on the other side of the planet, but we can’t to a damn thing for my friends with spinal cord damage – Where is their stem cell cure?

I can watch a movie in my hand on the subway and then use the same device to take a photo, but my friends with auto-immune disorders are met with the pill equivalent of soma holidays to numb the pain – Where is their stem cell cure?

I watched grandparents deteriorate into shambling husks of anger and confusion. I’ve seen the ravages of cancer and the horrors of the “treatments” – Where were their stem cell cures?

When I say we live in a broken future, I mean it. The next time you walk into a doctor’s office, marvel at the barbarism. Paper charts, metal tools, diagnoses based on a single test or a 10 minute visit with a single person. That is, of course, if you can forget how monumentally broken the system designed to pay for it is.

Medicine is the next frontier of the future. Traditional medicine is not good. It hurts people through errors, omissions, inadequate data, and simplistic solutions every single minute of every single day.

We are all so goddamned scared we’ll make a mistake that no one is willing to look around at the medical system and say, “This, all of this, is the mistake. Time to fix it. Time to build the future.”

Until that happens, I only have one question, “Where are our stem cell cures?”

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