05 August 2010

Atomic lessons for stem cell funding

In my last post, Wasted, I promised to offer an efficient, alternative way to finance, administer, and plan stem cell research. Today I will attempt to do this.

I think that most people don't see any possible alternatives to the current approach, which can be summed up like this. Start off with public funding (your taxes) and then divide it up in small sums between many different universities and private research facilities. The private research facilities then try to attract private investors to raise even more money and universities partner with private research facilities. Is what I’m writing true? Have a look at what ‘institutions’ are being funded in California alone.

Now because private profit is at stake no one will share any of their information. Now all the private research facilities and universities with an appetite for public funds (your taxes) begin to clamour for more research funds and we the public, and especially those with illnesses that could be cured with stem cells, add or voices for more money. Sometimes the public even gets involved by trying to raise donations to again divide up into small portions among private companies that will never cooperate because their bottom line is at stake. 

Like I stated in, Wasted, this is not a criticism of profit or the profit motive or any kind of theoretical perspective about the free market. It is simply to illustrate a very important point. Not enough money, divided amongst many groups who have no motivation to cooperate is inefficient and will no more bring CURE therapies than if we prayed to the 'Spagehtti god'. So what's my great idea you ask?

Well, it's not my great idea. It's a proven way with proven results and it shows that with the right amount of money and more importantly planning and management things that seem impossible can get done. Welcome to Atomic Lessons for Stem Cell Research.

Before I get stuck writing a whole history of the atomic bomb project let me tell you that that's not my goal. At the end of this post I will give you some good links if you're interested. What I will do is point out the main similarities and the main differences. At the end you can judge whether proper planning can bring stem cells from research to cure.

Neither stem cells nor atom bombs are pipe dreams:
We cannot will away disease anymore than they could will the creation of an atom bomb. Money with no science will not work. When the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, Germany and Japan became interested in the atomic bomb there was already a lot of science behind the idea and the governments of these four countries put a lot of resources in trying to make the science into an atomic bomb. Britain under attack by Germany was not in a position to develop it and from an early point brought their important atomic ideas to the US in a letter from the MAUD committee. Nazi Germany with some of the best scientific minds in the world and the most developed chemical industry in the world could not do it after most of their top minds became refugees from the Nazis. Japan by 1943 was already suffering scarcities that made their atomic bomb project take a back seat to more pragmatic war efforts. It was the USA, an economic and industrial powerhouse protected from the war by two oceans, with the help of the British and Canadian governments that built the bomb. 

Just like today with stem cells, a lot of the science for the atomic bomb was there, just in many different places. Until the founding of the Manhattan Project by Roosevelt in 1941 most of the research was carried out by government (from 1939) and private foundation funded research at universities (just like stem cells today) throughout the US. The Manhattan Project finally took all the main research and researchers and put it under four main roofs. Four years later two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.

Stem cell research may already be much more advanced than the atomic bomb research in 1941. In 1939 Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist known for his work in developing the first nuclear reactor stated, "little likelihood of an atomic bomb, little proof that we were not pursuing a chimera." Compare this to Hans Keirstead, an eminent stem cell researcher, who said stem cells for Spinal Cord Injuries were not a matter of if, but of when but criticized a lack of funding; and you'll see that a Manhattan Project style push for stem cells will start moving stem cell therapies from laboratories into hospitals even more quickly than the creation of the atomic bomb.

When the Manhattan Project was founded in 1941 there was still a long way to go and a lot of questions remaining. There was the question of isotope separation (separating the right uranium from the wrong uranium), and which method was best as there were about three important methods being studied. Then there was the question of whether the fissile material for the chain reaction be uranium or plutonium, would it be a fission bomb or a fusion bomb. These problems were all worked out because all the main players were together and cooperated.

There is always talk about how planning, or even worse, government planning, will stifle research and innovation, but it’s actually not true. With stem cell research there is a lot of different research and innovation going on but what we need is a way to get the best of the research from the lab to the bedside and that means accelerating the process. Like with the atomic bomb, government involvement, actually government control, made sure that scientists picked the best methods to get the bomb made, they couldn't just debate the best method. They were under the gun, because...

There was/is a war going on:
The main US motivator to start atomic bomb research was the fear that the Nazis were on their way to building one first. Einstein wrote to Roosevelt, the American president, a little less than one month before the Nazi invasion of Poland, with his belief that Germany was on their way to obtaining a bomb. Even though America wasn’t yet in the war, Roosevelt knew very clearly that in the near future, America could not stay out of this war and would have to deal with the problem of a future enemy getting their hands on the most powerful weapon in the world. I’m sure that’s quite motivating.

Not including any other disease that could be CURED with stem cell therapies except Spinal Cord Injury, you already have more disabled people from this one condition (450,000 in the United States) than all the American war dead in the Second World War. Two hundred thousand more than the 250,000 American lives that some believe would have been lost if America had invaded Japan instead of dropping the atomic bomb. Over one hundred times the number of American war dead in Iraq. These numbers are not meant to lessen the meaning of those who have died in wars. On the contrary, it shows meaning in the fight for the lives that stem cell CURES could save. We are in a war like situation now. When there was no possibility of a cure, the war was being lost, now there is a chance to win.

Business should no more have an atomic bomb than they should have stem cells:
Private companies must not be able to control who gets stem cell cures either through overpricing or patent controls. This is not a new cough syrup, it will fundamentally change society, just like atomic power did, and the owner of the patent should not dictate who gets cured. 

Oddly enough even the atomic bomb had patent problems. Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, held the patent for the nuclear chain reaction. Rightly or wrongly, it was basically ignored as the government would not be dictated to. It may have taken a maverick, as Szilard is often described, to come up with this idea, but in the end Szilard wasn’t able to get financing for his project. Szilard didn’t make the atomic bomb, the US government did.

The sick should not be at the mercy of private companies who will decide if, since they will have the patent, a new stem cell therapy will make it to the ‘market’. Is it possible for a life saving drug NOT to be made available by private patent holders. You can have a look yourself.
Tamiflu and others (also includes alternative funding suggestions)

The bomb exists, stem cell cures don’t:
Four years after the Manhattan project, run by the government of the United States, was set up, there was an atomic bomb.

Where are we with stem cell research and how far are we from a cure? Even when new cures seem to exist (see ‘Such great news that it will sicken you’) they are not being widely used.

Now I will wait for someone to disagree and show me evidence that leaving stem cell research in private hands will get cures into the world population.

Further atomic bomb reading:

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