28 October 2010

Rotting on Remand and the Geron trials

I stood before the judge that day
As he refused me bail
I knew that I would spend my time
Awaiting trial in jail
I cried there is no justice
As they led me out the door
And the judge said,
"This isn't a court of justice son, this is a court of law."
...I was picked up on suspicion of something I hadn't done
Here I sit in F Wing waiting for my trial to come
It's a cruel unusual punishment that society demands
Innocent till proven guilty, rotting on remand

"When we started working with human embryonic stem cells in 1999, many predicted that it would be a number of decades before a cell therapy would be approved for human clinical trials," Dr. Thomas B. Okarma, president and chief executive officer of the California-based company, said in a statement.
While a milestone in the technology, the drug candidate is still a long way from being proven and reaching the market. It still faces many years of testing for effectiveness if all goes well in the early stage study.

I know exactly how the protagonist in the song feels. Anyone who has stood before the doctor and told that they have a chronic condition understands these lyrics.

In my case, the doctor explained clearly the day after my operation that I was paralyzed, but with the research going on with stem cells there was a good chance that in the near future something could be done. He refused to sentence me. I would rot on remand.

Some prisoners give up. They refuse to participate in life. Some prisoners, especially those in countries with more rehabilitative prison programmes, go on with their lives. They go to school, write books, study law, even get married and enjoy conjugal visits.

But all prisoners, regardless of how they decide to live their lives inside, all share something in common; they are deprived of their complete freedom, much like those suffering from chronic illnesses. There is no real thriving, there is only "using your time wisely - building time" or "fighting time". Either way, you're a prisoner.

All the evidence regarding the regenerative impact of stem cells for spinal cord injury, blindness, ALS, MS, heart disease, etc. is meaningless if we don't get to the human cures. In the case of spinal cord injury they say they need to go slowly, they can't take big risks because we have quality of life in our wheelchairs. Yes, we can have quality of life, just like a model prisoner, but still rotting on remand.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we take reckless risks. I'm just saying that until the government gets behind the coordination of the entire project, not leave it up to Geron and their investors (who may even run away if the trials aren't successful). I'm not even suggesting a risk like when they tested the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos. There they worried about a very big risk.

One scientist raised the possibility that an atomic bomb might ignite the atmosphere. Another scientist calculated that it could not happen and then after some study they concluded that, "the ignition of the atmosphere was not impossible, just unlikely." But the question was never laid to rest until the day they exploded the first bomb.

Quite the risk, that igniting the atmosphere stuff, but they went ahead to win a war.

We should refuse to become model prisoners and wait patiently. We need to raise our voices together to win the war.

23 October 2010

Italian StemCells&AtomBombs

"O Eterno, ascolta la mia preghiera, e porgi l'orecchio al mio grido; non esser sordo alle mie lacrime; poiché io sono uno straniero presso a te,  - un pellegrino, come tutti i miei padri." (Salmo XXXIX)

"Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee and a sojourner; as all my fathers were." (Psalm XXXIX)

And with this verse from the Psalms, I launch the Italian version of StemCells&AtomBombs, www.CelluleStaminalieBombeAtomiche.blogspot.com.

The Italian version has a special place in my heart because even though I now live in Osaka, Japan and was born in Woodstock, Ontario, my father and mother are both Italians. In fact Italian is my first language as I didn't really learn to speak English properly until I went to school. Italian is the language of my childhood home, the language I speak with my mother and spoke with my father, he passed away fifteen years ago, and the language I spoke with my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and friends of my parents.

But like a lot of immigrant kids, our grasp of our mother tongue is limited because of our lack of education in our parents' language. Little by little, as English took over our minds, we became a little estranged from our parents. Our Italian wasn't good enough to say exactly what we wanted our parents to hear, and our parents' English was never good enough to hear exactly what we wanted to say...for I am a stranger with thee.

I hope that with the team of very dedicated volunteer translators (Anna Recchia, Nicoletta Natoli, and Daniela Bollini) my mother will be able to read my adult thoughts and understand me a little better. I hope that she will be happy with the son that she raised.

I have family all over the world. From Italy to Switzerland - my father's brothers and my own father for a very short time before he turned twenty. From Italy to Argentina - my father's brother who died there after only a short time. From Italy to America twice and back to Italy - my great-grandfather on my mother's side. From Italy to France and from Italy to Boston in America- my mother's mother's brothers. And from Italy to Canada for my father at nineteen and my mother in her twenties along with my father's many cousins who were already there and on my mother's side all except two sisters plus my grandmother. I probably have cousins in places I don't know.

And now me, to Japan where I have two boys who are half Italian-Canadian and half Japanese. My wife jokes about where my boys will someday live, but I am adamant that the Tesolat migration story will end with me. I do not wish my children to be sojourners; as all my fathers were.

My biggest fear if I continue to live in Japan is that my own children will become what I must have become to my parents - a son who was unable to fully understand my own parents' lives and language. I fear that my children will also become strangers from me. This is the loneliness that all our immigrant parents and grandparents must have felt, and now it will be my turn.

Since coming to Japan, a country with very few European immigrants, I feel a special bond to my parents and relatives who were sojourners before me. I remember my long telephone conversations with a favourite aunt, and how she talked to me differently once I moved away from Canada. She talked to me in a more intimate way, as if I, being an immigrant myself, could understand her heart much better. Of course, I never knew the economic hardships she knew, and I never left the country of my birth because of economic conditions (even though I also left Canada because of a recession that made finding work difficult), but she didn't really talk to me about those things. She talked to me about the loneliness of being a stranger in a strange land, of not being with her own mother, and this I could truly understand...Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry.

Like the loneliness of the immigrant, there is a loneliness that comes from being sick, or paralyzed as in my case.

I think of my own situation. Suddenly paralyzed at 39 years of age with two small boys still to raise in a country that is not my own. Loneliness also visits me from time to time.

The loneliness is not all encompassing. Life doesn't stop for the infirm or the immigrant. Family and friends are married, children are born and baptized, children grow, go to school, get jobs, fall in love and eventually get married and make us grandparents. There are too many good people and good things around us to feel lonely all the time.

But like an old friend who we sometimes forget about, loneliness drops in for a visit.

For me, he visits each day as I open my eyes in the morning. He stays just a short while, but long enough to let me know he's still there. I'm sure he'll visit me less in the future.

For immigrants, loneliness visits especially when there is a death or sickness in the home country. When yet another root that bound them to the past is ripped from them. I remember these times in my house when I was a kid and I remember it when my own father died while I was in Japan. I can imagine how my family felt when I called them to tell them that I was paralyzed.

Loneliness also visits during happy events when despite all the loving faces around us, the immigrant thinks of all those who are not with us; a mother, a brother, a son. I can imagine how my own parents felt during happy events in Canada because I know that loneliness paid them a visit as he visited me during the birth of my two sons, far away from their own grandmother in Canada.

And he also visits me when I see fathers playing with their children, riding bikes, running in the park; all the things that I can't do with my own children now. When I see these things I can feel the hand of my old friend resting on my shoulder.

Those around the immigrant and the sick can never completely erase this feeling of loneliness, but can add to it, especially when society as a whole makes them feel unwanted and does not try to meet their needs. And this is the last point I wish to make today. This point is directed towards all of Italy, the place that I know only from my parents' stories.

I was reading in the paper today about Italians' attitudes towards Gypsies in Italy. Sixty eight percent of Italians feel them to be criminals and other despicable news of mob violence against Gypsies. I ask Italians to remember the emigrants that left Italy in search of a better life because Italy could not take care of them. In fact, these emigrants, leaving Italy, helped Italy rebound after the war.

And I also ask you in Italy to see some important words and figures from Canada.

"...among the strikers area majority of foreigners, chiefly Italians, who are reported to have prepared to meet opposition to their demands at the point of the knife, the national weapon of the 'dago'..." (Daily News 1906).

"A mob of children come screaming from a small side street somewhere. They are dirty little wretches, with hair uncombed and clothes all torn. You wonder why they are not in school." (Margaret Bell writing about the social conditions of Italians in Toronto, 1912).

And just so you don't think I'm writing about ancient history, as late as 1977 a Gallup Poll surveying Canadians' attitudes towards Italians for the first time reported that 40% of Canadians linked Italians with crime.

A society that turns against the strangers in their midst will soon be a society that turns against the other weaker members and treat them like a burden. First the immigrants, then the old, and then the infirm, and it will only intensify their loneliness.

On the other hand, a society that takes a step towards the lonely will achieve great things

Not from science, but from a feeling of human brotherhood; that's where I'll get my stem cells.

15 October 2010

Cigarettes, StemCells&AtomBombs

Poor planning? A lack of coordination? Government failure? Private sector failure?

The Yomiuri Newspaper has just reported that the Champix drug supply in Japan has run out.

Champix, from Pfizer Japan, is an oral smoking cessation drug which blocks the part of the brain that receives nicotine, making it difficult for smokers to enjoy the taste of cigarettes.

The government of Japan had a great chance and they blew it!

As of 1 October cigarette prices increased by a whopping 35%. A massive increase that was part of the governments anti smoking measures. This increase was supposed to get people wanting to quit smoking. So why is the best anti-smoking drug on the market in short supply?

The Yomiuri reported that the, "demand greatly exceeded Pfizer's expectation." A doctor at the famous Tokyo Medical University was quoted as saying, "In no way did I expect that the about 100YEN increase in cigarette prices to cause demand for the drug to surge."

Well, I don't blame the doctor and I don't blame Pfizer Japan. I'm shocked that they were shocked by the massive increase in demand for this drug, but it's not their job to consider the overall health of people in Japan. That's the government's job.

I'm not saying that the government isn't able to plan these things out, I'm saying that they DIDN'T, and that's the problem.

It's an ideological problem. Actually, it's an ideological problem which is interfering in practical health delivery matters. This ideology says that governments shouldn't interfere in the marketplace. According to this religion-like-ideology, Pfizer should have expected the surge and naturally met the market need to maximize profits. So what went wrong?

It's easy. Pfizer didn't increase the supply in case there wasn't a demand. They played it safe and maybe lost some sales, but more importantly they didn't risk losing money by increasing the supply of something that maybe no one wanted.

So what should have happened?

The government should have...
...planned an increase.
...educated people about this very easy way to quit smoking.
...surveyed smokers willingness to quit.
...then secured an adequate supply of this drug to MAKE SURE it met demand.

It's easy to understand why people are cynical and think that this was never intended to be a public health measure but a pure and simple tax grab.

This could have been an excellent stop smoking plan in a country where over 30% of the male population smokes, but instead the drug maker has asked hospitals to postpone prescribing the drug to new patients as they will not be able to get the drug until next year.

By next year, the shock of the increase will have worn off and this golden opportunity missed.

You'll notice that governments never run out of uranium to fire atom bombs. No! Even a failed state like North Korea can secure this evil.

I guess there is no need to talk about why there is no stem cell based cure for spinal cord injury yet.

09 October 2010

Fetishes and the World Stem Cell Summit

For many people ALL stem cells equal EMBRYONIC stem cells (stem cells derived from embryos).

Is it true? Did people imagine it?

Well, it's neither true nor imagined. It comes from our friends at the media. I'm not trying to say that's it's dominated by either liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, left wingers or right wingers trying to skew the story their own way, but let's face it, the media is a business and they sell news, the more controversial, the easier to sell stories. Thus the focus on embryonic stem cells.

It's hot. Using discarded embryos to cure chronic disease.
It's controversial. Using embryos that must be destroyed after the stem cells are extracted.

People are hotly divided. The camps are deeply entrenched. This stuff sells news and it's what is reported. Do you know how many stories I've read and watched about Adult Stem Cells (stem cells derived from the patients themselves) where the story talks about about the controversy over EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS even though they have nothing to do with the story. I watched one story where they were reporting on TCA Celllular Therapeutic's clinical trials for spinal cord injury using bone marrow stem cells and it ended with the news reporters introducing a poll asking if people were for or against embryonic stem cells. This is not just bad reporting, it's a terrible sensationalism which turns stem cells into a moral debate while forgetting the benefits that all people can gain from stem cell research.

In America where the debate over embryonic stem cell research SEEMS the most divisive and courts have recently blocked state funding for embryonic stem cell research, you'd think society was bitterly divided. But even this is not true. An Angus Reid Poll from 2007 shows that two-thirds of Americans favour embryonic stem cell research, and a 2009 poll shows that only about 20% of Americans are opposed to any kind of research using embryos. The only place where the debate is divisive is on the TV and in the newspapers, most people want all options explored.

Think about all the coverage about embryonic stem cells and then consider the fact that there was almost NO coverage for the World Stem Cell Summit held in Detroit from October 4 to 6. Had this been an EMBRYONIC stem cell summit I'm sure that all the press would have been there. But seeing that only a few of the 150 presenters and speakers were talking about embryonic stem cells, the press stayed away from this world showcase of stem cell therapies.

So here it is; people did not imagine that stem cell research equals EMBRYOS, it's been put in our minds.

If opponents of embryonic stem research actually used their energy to work on other stem cell cures instead of selling half truths to the media, at least it would lead to something positive. Oddly enough for all the Vatican's opposition to embryonic stem cell research, they actually do something positive by funding research into adult stem cells. The Vatican isn't just going around condemning stem cell research, they're putting their money ($2.7 million dollars) where their mouths are and funding research at the University of Maryland.

I hope we can someday see: one, more honest in the media over stem cell research, and two, more action on adult stem cell research from those who oppose embryonic stem cell research.