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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Friday, May 8, 2009

Will The FDA Kill Adult Stem Cell Medicine?

I usually try to take a humorous approach to the serious issues involved with dealing with chronic illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. This issue is so serious, though, that I'm not finding much funny about it.

A recent news article raises some questions that are of utmost importance to any patient dealing with serious/chronic illness. Although the article is more an opinion piece then straight up journalism, the issues it talks about are vitally important.

In a nutshell, the piece is concerned with the fact that the FDA is currently in the process of deciding whether to classify adult stem cells as prescription medicines, which would thereby give the FDA the right to regulate the way such medicine will be administered. Please keep in mind, we're not talking about embryonic stem cells here, so there are no moral politics involved in this matter. At issue is adult stem cell therapy, which comes with none of the complicated moral questions surrounding embryonic cells. Instead, it's money, scads and scads of dollars, that are at the heart of the issue.

The drug companies (Big Pharma) are lobbying hard to get the FDA to declare stem cells "prescription drugs", thereby giving the drug companies considerable control over this revolutionary medical technology. Stem cells hold the promise of completely changing the face of modern medicine. They are the key to unlocking the human body's own ability to heal and regenerate itself. Stem cells could make the way medicine is currently practiced, with all of its invasive surgeries and use of potentially toxic pharmaceuticals, as obsolete as the medical practices of the 1700s are today.

This all presents a great threat to the pharmaceutical industry. Over the last 50 years, the marketing of pharmaceuticals has become an industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Much of this money is generated by drugs used to treat "chronic" illnesses, such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Diseases such as these are cash cows for the industry, because patients stricken with them are forced to be consumers of the industry's products for life. Medicine is well on the way to transforming previously fatal diseases, such as some forms of cancer and AIDS, into chronic illnesses, creating yet more lifelong consumers of expensive pharmaceutical therapies.

The success of stem cells would mean that many of the medicines used to treat chronic illnesses would be rendered instantly obsolete. Big Pharma stands to lose billions and billions of dollars if the promise of stem cells turns out to be even only partially fulfilled.

It's important to remember that all of the companies that make up "Big Pharma" are public companies, and as such are by law beholden to their stockholders, not to the patients that take their products. Their primary mandate as public companies is not to benefit mankind through the creation of medical miracles, but to earn ever increasing amounts of money.

While on the face of it this would seem to be all well and good, as the best way for pharmaceutical companies to make money is to create effective drugs, there is actually a basic conflict to this equation. Turning potentially fatal or disabling diseases into manageable chronic illnesses generates huge amounts of wealth, but curing those same illnesses puts an end to the cash flow. Thus, we see great amounts of effort and capital going into researching drugs that treat illnesses, but not much going into research that might actually cure them.

I'm not suggesting that there is some evil conspiracy afoot, or that there is a cabal of miserly old men sitting in an opulent conference room somewhere, casually devouring infants as they plot to make untold billions of dollars by ensuring that illnesses are never cured. If that were the case, the solution would be easy, simply eradicate that opulent conference room and the baby eaters in it, and proceed on to the cures. Instead, the problem is much more insidious.

Over 70% of medical research in the United States is funded by the pharmaceutical companies. As stated before, the primary mandate of these companies is to make money, which they do best by discovering "blockbuster" drugs that will generate billions of dollars. Therefore, pharmaceutical research money is funneled towards projects that hold the promise of just such discoveries.

Research scientists, as well-meaning as they might be, still must rely on grants from pharmaceutical companies to fund their research (and therefore pay their rent, feed their families, and advance their careers), and thus are naturally inclined to conduct research that will attract pharmaceutical company dollars. In a way, it's a vicious cycle; pharmaceutical companies tend to fund only those projects which they think have the biggest profit potential, thereby influencing researchers and scientists, who, after all, need to make a living, to embark upon research that is likely to have the profit-making potential that the drug companies are looking for.

Stem cells threaten to throw this whole system on its ear. The process of extracting stem cells from a patient (usually from bone marrow or fat tissue) can be done in a doctor's office, and the processing of such cells can take place in laboratories outside the purview of the pharmaceutical companies. These procedures are not so complicated that the industrial might of the pharmaceutical industry is needed to make them a reality. They are more on the scale of fertility treatments, which are administered in local clinics by local doctors without the "help" of Big Pharma.

If the pharmaceutical industry is successful in its lobbying efforts to get the FDA to declare stem cells "prescription drugs", the power of stem cells will be ripped from the hands of physicians and placed in the hands of public companies whose profit-making mandate could actually lead to the suppression of potentially revolutionary stem cell therapies. This would have tragic consequences for the millions of patients that could potentially benefit from stem cell treatments.

Laboratory models and animal testing have shown that these treatments are extremely viable, and many could likely be ready to treat human patients within the next five years, if left in the hands of physicians and researchers. If, instead, stem cells are declared "prescription drugs", these therapies might not see the light of day for decades.

If you or a loved one suffers from a chronic illness, it is time for your voice to be heard. Call your senators, call your congressman, write letters to your newspapers. Demand that your friends and family do the same. Climb up on soapboxes and scream from mountaintops. Bang drums, put on face paint, and go on the warpath. Treat this issue as if your very life depends on it, because it does...

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