30 September 2010

And I thought the atom bomb was perfect

Just when I thought that the making of the atom bomb perfectly exemplified what can be done with full government backing, coordination, and funding, I realized I only had half the story.

Yes, I was right about how the use of the full force of the state built the atom bomb quickly, but what sense is there in having a nuclear device if you can't bomb the hell out of people? It would be like having a stem cell based cure for blindness and not using it to heal the blind (see here for more information).

No, the story after the bomb was built shows even more clearly how the government played an even more centralized role in both strengthening the destructive power of the bomb and ensuring that the bomb would be delivered to cause the most death possible.

First they wanted to increase the strength of the atomic bomb itself, so they made the new and improved A-bomb, the Hydrogen Bomb. The first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a mere 12.5 kilotons (note: Kilotons does not refer to the weight of the bomb, but it's equivalency in TNT. Therefore the one bomb dropped on Hiroshima was equivalent to dropping 12.5 kilotons of TNT). The hydrogen bomb, developed shortly after the atomic bomb, made the KILOTON value obsolete. The hydrogen bomb raised the count to MEGAtons.

But again, what sense is a few megatons if you're not able to use them?

So in the 1950s the Americans and Soviets went on a frenzy to see who could bomb their enemy the best. They built long range bombers and a wide range of tactical nuclear weapons including nuclear laced artillery shells, short range missiles, and even land mines. Finally Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in the 1960s allowed each of the superpowers to unleash nuclear weapons with little warning.

Thousands of hydrogen and atomic bombs. So what!
The means to deploy those weapons. So what!

What was needed now was an efficient plan to kill with.

So in 1960, in the last months of his presidency, then-president Eisenhower, along with the military, devised SIOP, short for Single Integrated Operational Plan.

Until that time, each branch of the military - the Army, Navy, and Air Force - had been building their own nuclear weapons with their own war plans. Eisenhower saw it clearly. You can't have everyone running around willy-nilly with nuclear weapons, it was inefficient, what was needed was a COORDINATED plan of attack. SIOP did just this.

A few examples.

If the Soviets attacked the US or western Europe, the US would then launch ALL its nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and red China. SIOP also went as far as to predetermine which weapons and how many of them would be dropped on each target. One thousand four hundred and fifty nine bombs, totaling 2164 megatons - against 654 targets killing 175 million people.

Under the plan, a Russian city the size of Hiroshima would get three bombs: one 4.5 megaton bomb and two 1.1 megatons bombs just in case the first one was a dud. More than 600 times the explosive power of the measly 12.5 kilotons dropped on Hiroshima. A 27 September 2010 article in Time magazine said of the plan, "The calculations that went into the plans were hair raising, resulting in tremendous overkill."

Albania, a tiny country which was then breaking away from the Soviet bloc warranted a MULTImegaton bomb just because they had a large air-defense radar. While explaining the Albanian plan to the new Kennedy administration a general told the new Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara this. "Mr. Secretary, I hope that you don't have any friends or relations in Albania, because we're just going to have to wipe it out!"

Now that's a plan! The device, the means to deliver it, and a plan for delivery.

How about stem cells?

19 September 2010

Democracy and disease

I'm finally back at home. It's great to be back with my wife and kids. I have to admit that I was a  little nervous at first but things seem to be going very well. 

The solitude of the hospital probably did help my writing a little, but I am determined to keep this blog going now that I am home. It may be a little more difficult to write with my kids running around the house, but I hope this new normalcy will improve the stories that you see in this blog. 

Thank you for all your kind words on my discharge. I wish you all health and happiness. 

Let's start.

We are all rightfully outraged when we hear of people, especially kids, dying of totally preventable and curable diseases in third world countries. Illnesses such as measles, diarrhea, and pneumonia that don't kill our own children in developed nations, and malaria which is not even a concern for most of us, kills eleven million children annually. 

Most of the deaths are concentrated in a handful of countries. Just six countries account for half of worldwide deaths of children younger than five, and 42 countries for 90 percent of deaths.  India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia alone suffer 5.5 million child deaths a year. Altogether, about 41 percent of child deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and another 34 percent in South Asia.

The deaths stemming from these diseases are not a scientific or a financial problem. The science exists to stem these diseases and even the poorest countries could deal with the financial side if they were accountable to their own citizens in how and where money is spent. Simply put, these deaths stem from a lack of democracy in these countries. Of the six countries mentioned in the paragraph above not one ranks as a full democracy according to the Economist's Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index.

What do I mean by a lack of democracy? 
The governments of these nations don't care that their citizens die, the lives of the poor are cheap, AND because their own citizens are not in a position, due to the authouritarian nature of their countries' regimes or because of the the poverty inflicted on them, to change the situation. This is not some kind of highfalutin theory of democracy, this is reality.

What would happen in Canada or in the UK if children died because of diarrhea? Would parents allow it? No, and they would be in a position to force their governments' hands. Parents in authouritarian countries do not have this choice. They cannot demand that their governments act. You can! 

So what does this have to do with stem cells and spinal cord injury, or stem cells and multiple sclerosis, or stem cells and blindness? It's the same - a simple question of democracy. 

How can I say this? 

There are no real scientific or financial barriers to stem cell cures. Sure they may take some adjustments but they are here, or at least very very close. There has been progress with embryonic stem cell research, but also much more progress with adult stem cells, but as long as the debate stays focussed on the difference between these two kinds of stem cells, the longer that regular people will stay away from the discussion. Not because most people have a problem with one kind of stem cell over the other, but because the arguments sound too technical and scientific for regular people to involve themselves with. 

Our goal needs to change the stem cell debate from a scientific question to a democratic question.

Unlike those in countries which have no real democracy, people in the leading democracies don't need to remain silent over their wishes to see stem cell research and stem cell cures continue. No one will snatch you away at night for talking. The cure is right there where your voice is, but if you do not raise your voice, the cure will not reach people but will stay focussed on rats and monkeys.

So am I selfish for demanding a cure for chronic illness when diarrhea is still killing children in Africa and south east Asia? No, because one doesn't have anything to do with the other. High wages in western countries do not lower wages in poor countries, the fact that you have a high definition TV does not prevent a poor child from going to school, and the focus on stem cell cures does not prevent a cure for diarrhea deaths.

Actually, demanding that medicine and science is opened up to regular people's opinions will get us not only stem cell cures but will, if we focus on movement correctly, on making sure that people in poor countries are emboldened to fight their own undemocratic regimes and demand real changes in their health and financial situations.

Whenever you think I'm crazy for making such a demand for a cure, and whenever you think you're crazy for believing that such a demand can be met, remember the line from Lorenzo's oil that I mentioned two posts ago.

"Remember the Manhattan Project? Twenty eights months. It took them twenty eight months. Now, if scientists can come together to build the atomic bomb,...surely..."
If a country like North Korea, where people are dying of hunger, can build an atomic device, it shows that 
money is not a barrier to science. In North Korea, people do not have the right to raise their voices and 
demand that money be diverted to meet people's needs, but where most of you are reading this blog from, 
you do have that right. Let's not waste it.

Stem cell cures are around the corner if you demand it. What we need to focus on now is how to raise our 
voices together.

15 September 2010

Dedicated to all of you at M.Hospital! Japanese version launched

Japanese version at www.Kansaibo-Genbaku.blogspot.com

Today (16 September 2010) is the launch of the Japanese version of StemCells&AtomBombs 【幹細胞&原爆】 at www.Kansaibo-Genbaku.blogspot.com and plans are in the works for the Russian, Italian, French, Chinese, German, and Romanian versions.

As this is my last day in the hospital, I find it appropriate to dedicate my new blog to all the people at M. Hospital who have helped me over this past year.

To all of you at M. Hospital, I would like to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I wish I could have told you all directly, but had I have tried, the tears would have washed the words from my mouth and you would have never heard my thank you.

I know that I have spoken about stem cells with many of you during my days in the hospital. I hope you have the time to read this blog. There will be regular updates and I would love to know that you are reading my words so we can continue our conversation. Signing up to receive these site updates will make sure that we are always in touch.

Spread the word in whatever language you can.
Let's remember that the whole world is not English. Do you speak another language? Would you like to become a volunteer translator for StemCells&AtomBombs? Send me an email. That's how it works - people helping people.

10 September 2010

The G20, Martin Luther King, and Invivo Therapeutics

"When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance. We've learned to fly the air as birds, we've learned to swim the seas as fish, yet we haven't learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters."

I think Martin Luther King may have summed up my entire post in five lines of eloquence, as compared to the 300 lines I got to write to make the same point. 

First about the scientific and technological abundance part.
  • Geron Corporation will start human trials for spinal cord injury using embryonic stem cells.
  • TCA Cellular got the green light for human trials in spinal cord injury using adult stem cells and has already started.
  • Human trials for ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease) using neural stem cells are starting.
  • The blind are having their vision restored using stem cells in Italy and Australia.
  • Stem cells and Multiple Sclerosis.
  • Stem cells and heart disease.
  • Stem cells and...
These therapies and trials can be found by simply searching for the disease name + stem cells.

The list of diseases that may be treatable using stem cells grows and grows every day. The therapy that I would like to discuss today is for spinal cord injury from a company called Invivo Therapeutics (which believes that stem cells may not be necessary for curing spinal cord injury but they have done the stem cell tests, too) founded by medical entrepreneur Frank Reynolds

Before I go any further I am going to state unequivocally that I would love this therapy to succeed and if Mr. Reynolds called me up and asked me to try it out in one of their human trials that are scheduled for next year, I would jump (not literally because I can't) at the chance. Please understand that any criticisms that I am about to make are not directed towards Mr. Reynolds or his company.

I'm not going to go into the science behind this because you can read about it yourself but I would like to state two truly remarkable things about this therapy. One, it is the first therapy for spinal cord injury to be tried on a monkey, and it works. Two, they will bring this product to market for only $12 billion dollars. 

NO! NO! NO! Not $12 billion, $12 MILLION, which according to Mr. Reynolds is, "very much unheard of in the medical community today." According to Invivo Therapeutics, this $12 million dollar investment could pay off $1 billion dollars if the human trials are successful.

Now the haven't learned to walk the earth as brothers and sisters part.

Why has Mr. Reynolds and his team, of what he calls mostly grad students, been able to pull of something of this magnitude for pennies, when no government has? 

Is it because governments are not innovative? 
Well, look at the atomic bomb.

Is it because the cure is to expensive to develop? 
Actually, Mr. Reynolds has proven that it can be done quite cheaply. Furthermore governments are already funding a lot of work, but in many cases are only funding the future profits of private companies. Also, care for people with spinal cord injuries costs much, much more than a cure for spinal cord injury (see more information at the bottom of this post).

This is simply, as Martin Luther King said, because we "haven't learned to walk the earth as brothers and sisters." Governments are not meeting their obligation to their own citizens to make the people's needs top priority. Governments, because of ideology not fact, will let their own citizens suffer rather than give into the logic that private enterprise cannot solve all problems. 

This failure costs us money today and will cost of more money in the future. It will make the cure more expensive in the end, and more importantly it will increase the amount of time it will take to get the cure to the beside because as private companies compete for the golden ring, they will not share data that could hasten the cure.

For the sick, this failure costs much more than money. 

Spinal cord injury and all the other diseases that will be cured in the future will not be cured by one therapy. It will be a combination of different therapies, and that means cooperation, as opposed to competition, will hasten the cure. Private companies will not do this. Private companies have a duty to their investors to make profits, and rightfully so. This also means that one small failure could also lead to their investors pulling away, leaving the research to rot on the tree. The leadership to cure disease through cooperation, or as Dr. King calls it, "walking the earth as brothers and sisters," can only come through government, which in the end, is us.

If world leaders are not willing to walk hand in hand with their citizens, then it is up to us to use our collective power to drag them kicking and screaming behind us.

A few posts back I said that I would offer an efficient, alternative way to finance, administer, and plan stem cell research. It's something that you and I, as brothers and sisters, could work on together.
  1. The G20 countries set up a fund based on their GDP totaling $29 billion, the same amount as the atomic bomb cost, and also set up a G20 Secretariat for medical research.
  2. This fund be used to pay for all the research that is going on at universities and at private companies which agree to cooperate fully in sharing data and agree that all patents are held collectively.
  3. That scientists are given regular access to each other to do the sharing that will bring us the cure.
Well, the G20 will meet again next year. So I/we have a lot of work to do in the meantime.

On a different note, I recommend watching the movie Lorenzo's Oil starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte. I got turned on to this film my reading about Frank Reynolds who watched it when he himself was paralyzed and inspired him to look for the cure.

It's a true story about a mother and father of a boy with ALD. At that time, there was no way to stop the degeneration caused by the ALD so the mother and father started looking for a cure themselves, and found it. They were too late for their own boy as the myelin sheath that insulates nerves of the central nervous system allowing the nerves to conduct impulses was already damaged. So the parents started to look for a way to remyelinate the nerves.

For me the most telling part of this movie is right at the end (3:12) when the boy's father is discussing with a researcher. The researcher is telling the father about the slowness of science and that scientists don't like to collaborate. Nick Nolte, the father, answers:

"That's not necessarily so, because remember the Manhattan Project? Twenty eights months. It took 
them twenty eight months. Now, if scientists can come together to build the atomic bomb,...surely theycome together to remyelinate some puppy dogs?" (The original tests were to be done on dogs.)

From The University of Alabama National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center - March 2002 (from SCI-INFO-PAGES)
Costs of Spinal Cord Injury in the USA

  • Length of initial hospitalization following injury in acute care units: 15 days
  • Average stay in rehabilitation unit: 44 days
  • Initial hospitalization costs following injury: $140,000
  • Average first year expenses for a SCI injury (all groups): $198,000
  • First year expenses for paraplegics: $152,000
  • First year expenses for quadriplegics: $417,000
  • Average lifetime costs for paraplegics, age of injury 25: $428,000
  • Average lifetime costs for quadriplegics, age of injury 25: $1.35 million
  • Percentage of SCI individuals unemployed eight years after injury 63%. (Note: unemployment rate when this article was written was 4.7%)