Stemming the tide

A few weeks ago, a young woman from Livonia named Laura Jackson testified before the House Judiciary Committee in Lansing. Four years ago, when she was 14, she broke her neck in a cheerleading accident and is now paralyzed, "much like Christopher Reeve." She could not move her limbs, or even breathe on her own. Many people would have said, "Well, that's it. My life is over."

But not Laura, and not her parents, Daryl and Melody Jackson. They were determined to give her hope. Two years ago, they flew her to China for a revolutionary and radical form of surgery using stem cells. The trip was terrifically uncomfortable, the hospital primitive, and she was just plain scared, as anyone would be.

Then, a week later, she found she was able to breathe on her own for short periods. "I also noticed much more movement in my neck and shoulders. It improved my quality of life."

She came home; started physical therapy; "gained muscles in my arms and neck that I hadn't had since before my accident."

No, she still can't walk, or use her arms. But she isn't giving up. "I have prayed that some kind of research will be allowed in Michigan but still nothing has happened," she told the Legislature.

"I disagree with those who say embryonic stem cell research is not pro-life. This research represents the true pro-life position because it could save human lives and eliminate human suffering."

Her testimony would have made a stone weep. She was testifying because one of the state's better legislators, Rep. Paul Condino (D-Southfield), has introduced a package of bills to take the restrictions off embryonic stem cell work in Michigan.

Laura was wonderful. But her eloquence won't change the mind of the religious maniacs incorporated as Right to Life of Michigan.

They are determined to prevent the kind of research that could help turn her life around. They know they are right because God, or the Baby Jesus, or the Holy Ghost, or all three at once, speak to them. Once, I asked one of them, who was picketing in front of the Shrine of the Little Flower with a particularly obnoxious dead fetus sign, whether God spoke to her through the fillings in her teeth.

'The Lord uses whatever is necessary," she said serenely. (You can bet I had all my piercings out, like, fast.)

Seven weeks ago, I wrote about how our lives, our health and our state's economy were being held hostage and dragged down by the religious fanatics. These are people who would rather let Laura Jackson suffer than sanction embryonic stem cell treatment.

That's because, as they see it, using embryonic stem cells sanctions murdering precious human lives. What's worse, they have repeated this nonsense long enough and loud enough that some fools are beginning to believe it. So now, once again, for the truth.

Contrary to popular opinion, embryonic stem cells don't come from sacrificing babies. They weren't going to be made into a baby.

They were going to be flushed. They are little leftover balls of 50 to 100 cells or so called a blastocyst, excess embryos created in fertility clinics. Most wouldn't have survived even in a womb.

The Right-to-Lifers don't want you to know any of that, because they are dimly aware most people are sane, and some even have common sense. Once people know the truth, they've lost them.

However, late last month, there was an amazing medical breakthrough that perversely seemed likely to strengthen the misnamed "pro-life" forces. Two teams of researchers — in Wisconsin and in Kyoto, Japan — had taken ordinary skin cells, transplanted four genes into them and, presto, they suddenly started behaving like embryonic stem cells.

Right-to-Lifers howled with glee. They felt this proved they were right, that it was good enough to only use adult stem cells! They called for an immediate halt to embryonic research.

So I waited a few weeks, and then went to talk to Dr. Sean Morrison, who is director of the University of Michigan's Center for Stem Cell Biology. Yes, he told me, taking adult skin cells (well, they did use a baby's foreskin in Japan) and getting them to act like embryonic stem cells "is a very, very important discovery, with enormous potential."

Yet he cautioned that "it is very much premature to suggest that we give up embryonic stem cell research." No, the altered skin cells weren't, as I first feared, "fusion in a jar" phony media-hype science.

However, he added, "we really don't know enough yet about the properties of these genetically altered cells, nor if they stay stable over long periods of time." And there are potentially serious drawbacks.

The added genes are capable of "triggering cancer-causing mutations in the cell's DNA," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The researchers saw evidence that this was happening."

In other words, we may wind up trading one problem for another. True, they may figure out a way to factor all that out. Morrison hopes so. "Potentially, these cells would be easier to work with than embryonic stem cells." What's needed, he told me, is a lot of research and study using both methods.

Naturally, the Right to Lifers don't agree. They are mobilizing now to prevent Condino's package of bills from becoming law. Sadly they are almost certain to win, unless we give our lawmakers enough virtual stem cells to grow a backbone.

Marcia Baum, who runs a nonprofit outfit called Michigan Citizens for Stem Cell Research and Cures, isn't waiting for the Legislature to be ambushed again. She and her troops are now mobilizing to launch a petition drive to put a proposal legalizing embryonic stem cell research on next November's ballot.

Morrison hopes one of their efforts succeeds, and soon. What happens otherwise is not that cutting-edge embryonic stem cell research isn't done; it gets done in other states. "What we are doing now is sending a message to the world that Michigan isn't serious about the life sciences," the scientist told me.

Yes, that's the message we are sending, right when we desperately need new high-tech jobs and industries. Morrison tells me it isn't too late for Michigan to get back in the game.

Otherwise, well, the Christian nut jobs won't stop science. California has already told them to go take a hike. Michigan will just be left behind. You might contact your local legislators. I think I should let Laura Jackson finish this column.

Here's what else she said to the Legislature:

"Next year, a California company is going to begin trials on an embryonic stem cell treatment for people who have suffered spinal cord injuries … I can't help but think how different my life would be had this treatment been around when I had my accident.

"Now — at the age of 18 — I am still hopeful that Michigan's laws on embryonic stem cell research will change in the near future. I continue to work hard at keeping a healthy body. When there finally is a cure, I will be ready. I'm optimistic and looking forward to the day I will be able to get myself dressed, brush my own teeth, and take walks with my family. My hope is that the Michigan Legislature will work together to help me realize my dreams by passing stem cell research legislation that makes treatment for people in my condition possible."

They sure the hell should, Laura. Happy New Year.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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