Bay Area tackles stem cell debate

Published: November 18, 2006  |  Source: pensacolanewsjournal.com
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If you’re paralyzed from a spinal cord injury, walking is the least of your worries.

Tara Blackwell can’t grasp an apple. She needs help to use the bathroom. Breathing is difficult.

The Pine Forest High School graduate who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury while a Troy University softball player says the research her doctor is doing on embryonic stem cells could change all that.

She can’t understand why people are against getting the best possible help for people like her.

But others say it’s morally wrong.

“Most people can’t really relate,” said Blackwell, 21. “Anybody with a child or a friend in my situation would be for it. People need to be more open-minded.”

They might be more than we believe.

More people voted in favor of embryonic stem cell research than not on U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller’s online poll. Miller is staunchly opposed.

On the Web site of the Republican U.S. congressman — re-elected Nov. 7 — respondents voted 55 percent in favor embryonic stem cell research, 38 percent opposed and 7 percent undecided. By Thursday afternoon, 342 people had voted.

Pensacola resident G. Michael Harmon was surfing the Web site recently when he saw the poll.

“I thought it was interesting, considering the constituency here in Pensacola,” said Harmon, a registered Independent. “I was surprised.”

However, Miller urged caution when analyzing the poll results.

The poll is not scientific. It doesn’t ask where respondents are from, so there is no way to tell whether these are the desires of people from his district, or from a person anywhere in the world.

The goal of having online polls about hot-button issues is to allow people to express their opinions, stimulate debate and expose people to the Web site, he said.

Miller said he uses phone calls and e-mails to gauge the interests of his constituents.

Even so, Miller wouldn’t change his opposition to embryonic stem cell research, although he advocates funding research of adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood.

“This is an issue that deals with my personal beliefs,” Miller said. “I would not waiver my stance on this based on a poll.”

Medical experts say research using only embryonic stem cells is necessary because the cells are different from adult cells. Embryonic cells can multiply into an unlimited number of specialized cells. Their adult counterparts are more rare and develop only cells similar to the tissue from which they were taken.

By generating these embryonic cells, medical researchers expect to learn about diseases that start with problems in this process. It could lead to correcting the cancer cells and birth defect cells.

Also, embryonic stem cells could be a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases and disabilities such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Roy Wagner’s brother-in-law was in his 30s when he died of leukemia. Wagner lost other family members to the disease as well. He supports using embryonic stem cells in research and restorative therapies.

“You need to control it, though,” said Wagner, 73, of Gulf Breeze. “You don’t want it to go as far as getting into cloning or killing fetuses on purpose to get it.”

The fact that the federal government won’t fund any research on new embryonic stem cell lines makes it difficult for Linda Kelleher, a nurse in a clinic for children with cancer, to decide on its usefulness — it’s a catch-22.

“There aren’t enough facts,” said Kelleher, who has been in pediatric oncology for 28 years. “And when you think about it, what does Jeff Miller know about embryonic stem cell research? I think it’s one of those issues that should not be left in the hands of politicians.”

The research will happen whether the federal government funds it, said Dr. Charles Wolff, a Pensacola neurosurgeon. States are beginning to approve funding the research, and private research firms already do.

The promising solution for Parkinson’s disease is preventing the death of neurons in the first place, Wolff said. “The immediate benefits of stem cell research have been greatly exaggerated,” said Wolff, who operates on Parkinson’s disease patients at West Florida Hospital. “Stem cells could be just one basic scientific tool to see how the cells work.”

Wolff predicted seeing direct results in 10 to 20 years.

Meanwhile, the people who deal with these diseases and injuries spend the remainder of their lives searching for cures.

Tara Blackwell’s mother, Patty, said her family will wait for the day the research is strong enough to warrant federal funding. If it doesn’t happen, Tara’s mother will take her out of the country for the therapy.

“I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to help their child walk,” she said. “But it can help so many people besides my daughter with all sorts of conditions.

“If you have an opportunity to save a person’s life, how could you not want to move forward?”

by Amy Sowder