President Obama’s March 9, 2009, signing of an executive order removing barriers to embryonic stem cell research was momentous not only for the scientific community, which had previously operated under onerous restrictions, but also to those who suffer from diseases for which there is currently no treatment. But while embryonic stem cells may hold the most promise, the availability of such treatment is years, perhaps decades, away. The reality is that people with poor bodies need help today. These are people for whom conventional treatments have failed and for whom embryonic stem cell treatment in the United States is a distant dream. Autologous stem cell treatment, which uses stem cells taken from one’s own body, is safe and effective, but is currently prohibited in the US for readily available treatment of injuries and diseases. Autologous therapy has been shown to successfully treat heart disease and Type 2 diabetes which data shows disproportionately affect Blacks. Given the potential medical benefit to Blacks and the opportunity to bring together seemingly disparate interest groups – from the progressive to the conservative ends of the political spectrum – around a critical health care and civil rights issue, President Obama should immediately order the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to clarify regulations that have been incorrectly interpreted as classifying one’s own stem cells as a “drug.”
Unlike embryonic therapies, autologous therapy can help and is helping sick people now. Unfortunately, our current health care policy discourse has been monopolized by partisan debates over medical insurance reform, thus obscuring any truly holistic debate on health care. Consequently, stem cell therapies are seldom, if ever, discussed as an integral part of the future of health care in the US as a tool for both treatment and prevention of disease. And on the rare occasion that mainstream media outlets do discuss stem cells, their discussions are often uninformed and myopic, focusing only on the embryonic variety and the quasi-religious controversies that distort their future use. These discussions not only stifle thoughtful debate over the scientific merit of embryonic stem cells, but they also stifle debate about viable alternatives that are politically non-controversial, proven to work and ready for wider availability. For example, there has been significant coverage of federal litigation concerning the constitutionality of the mandate Affordable Care Act, but little to no coverage of litigation between Dr. Chris Centeno and the FDA over whether the FDA can legally regulate the use of autologous stem cells. This must change.
Simply put, autologous stem cells are the body’s own stem cells that can be extracted from bone marrow or fat tissue. They can be separated out, multiplied in culture and readministered to the same patient. This procedure has been used to successfully treat a variety of common conditions, such as tendon, cartilage and bone damage. Preliminary data show that similar therapies, using autologous mesenchymal stem cells, can even successfully treat heart disease and myocardial infarction. Dr. Richard Burt at Northwestern University has successfully treated neurological conditions such as CIDR and multiple sclerosis. Although autologous stem cell therapy is safe, other countries such as India, China and Germany have surpassed the US in making this treatment available to people who need it because in the US, the FDA improperly classifies a person’s own stem cells as a biologic “drug.” Consequently, our own stem cells are subjected to a long, arduous, disease-by-disease clinical trial process, a process which requires a significant financial investment. This means that people with potentially treatable diseases must either languish or raise the tens of thousands of dollars needed to travel overseas for treatment. We should not have to do this.
Blacks should care about autologous therapies because of their potential to treat heart disease and diabetes, debilitating and potentially deadly diseases which disproportionately affect Blacks. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, Blacks are more likely than Whites to have and die from heart disease. The American Heart Association found that heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 and No. 3 killers of Blacks. But preliminary results from clinical trials have demonstrated increased exercise capacity, decrease in pain and increased ejection fractions in patients with severely damaged heart tissue. In the case of diabetes, we know that Blacks are disproportionately affected by Type 2 diabetes. According to Brancati et. al., (2000) Black men are 20-50 percent more likely and Black women are more than 100 percent more likely than Whites to have or develop diabetes. However, in a study conducted at the Don Roberto Fernandez Vina Foundation in Argentina, 85 percent of participants who had diabetes were able to abandon insulin or insulin stimulating drugs when stem cells from their own bone marrow were injected directly into the pancreas.
But Blacks should not advocate for the immediate availability of autologous therapies simply because of its potential to heal countless Black Americans. It should also do so because this is an issue that encapsulates many of the values that Blacks have historically championed: helping racial minorities, persons with disabilities and others whose political voices have been muffled by a recalcitrant government; ensuring de facto equality between all groups that help constitute the diverse fabric of the American citizenry; making sure every American has quality health care and not just medical insurance, regardless of their physical or economic stations in life; and sustaining a deep respect for civil and human rights through movements that challenge status quo policies that, when applied, reveal themselves to be deleterious to vulnerable people. Indeed, this issue has the potential to unite seemingly disparate interest groups in a coalition for healing. The most obvious stakeholders might be Blacks and persons with disabilities, but interest convergence can also be found with social conservatives, many of whom seek alternatives to embryonic stem cell treatment. The possibility of such a coalition should not be dismissed. Rather, it should be embraced if it means that the result is easing the suffering of Americans who rely on their elected officials to remove restrictions that make them less healthy.
People with poor bodies, who perhaps needlessly endure perpetual physical penury, cannot wait to be made whole. President Obama and congressional leadership should adopt autologous stem cell therapy as an integral part of their health care, disability rights and civil rights platforms. Furthermore, President Obama should direct the FDA to clarify regulations that incorrectly define autologous treatment as a “drug” and should eliminate any and all other relevant legal impediments to the immediate availability of autologous stem cell therapies. Major media outlets should incorporate the issue into the health care debate as a viable avenue of treatment that is worthy of increased television, print and web coverage. They should also make sure to distinguish between embryonic, autologous and other stem cell varieties during news coverage. Finally, all Americans should educate themselves about the varieties of stem cell therapies and put more pressure on decisionmakers to bring true health care to those who need it the most.
A. Rahman Ford, J.D., M.A., is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Ford suffers from a debilitating, muscle-wasting wasting neuropathy.