Hope: Sgt. Cory Remsburg and Ethical Stem Cells

Hope: Sgt. Cory Remsburg and Ethical Stem Cells

Let’s put two recent news items together and see if we can envision a way to develop and deliver medical miracles. 

First, let’s start with the inspiring saga of Sgt. Cory Remsburg and his determination to overcome grievous war injuries. Anyone who saw or read about President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night knows about Remsburg. Nearly an hour into his speech, after lots of box-checking, laundry-listing, and going-through-the-motions-ing, Obama highlighted the story of the heroic Army Ranger: “On his tenth deployment, Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain.”

Thanks to combined action–comrades, doctors, and therapists from Central Asia to South Florida–Remsburg is alive today. If he’s not robust, he’s at least getting better. Perhaps more can be done to aid in his full recovery; we’ll get to that in a moment.

So that part of Obama’s speech was great–because it was built on powerful patriotic source material; Obama seemed sincere in his respect and admiration for Remsburg. (Yet of course, that didn’t stop liberal Obama sycophants in the MSM from equating the courage and grit of Remsburg to the supposed equivalent virtues of Obama; we might note that for all of Obama’s high self-regard, the MSM seem to regard him even more highly.)

Remsburg’s patriotism and determination, of course, stand far above a fawning media. But we might also take note of something else that’s wonderful: the effectiveness of the medical system that kept him alive when he was hit and that has nursed him back to health ever since, as detailed back in 2010 by USA Today. As we can see, much of the improvement has been brought about by the imperative to help the wounded warriors streaming back to the US from war zones: 

“So much has changed since 2006,” says physician Shane Mcnamee, VA director of the polytrauma center in Richmond. “The level of knowledge and approach that you need (to help brain-damaged patients awaken) is not something that you can just unpack out of box.”

They say two key factors helped. Because of the funding emphasis Congress has placed on treating traumatic brain injury during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA has more money to spend.

The VA spent $34 million in emerging-consciousness treatment for 104 patients since January 2007, according to department statistics. Total staffing at the four polytrauma centers has expanded from 78 specialists such as doctors and therapists in 2004 to 255 today. And in-patients are allowed more time to wake up.

The VA has its problems, to be sure–bad ones. Yet in the case of Remsburg and others suffering from grievous kinetic injuries, the VA seems to have done its job, and done it well. And why is that? Why is it effective in these specific cases, if not always for the system as a whole?

The answer might be that in the case of Remsburg and other wounded warriors, their situations garner much media attention, and a very specific goal is set. As with so many matters of motivation and management, it makes big difference when someone puts true “command focus” on a problem, as opposed to simply leaving it to “business as usual.”

And in this case, Remsburg is the beneficiary, and that’s good. Yet still, we might ask: Could the model be extended? Could it be extended not only to all wounded warriors, but also to the rest of us?

After all, it was military urgency that brought about enormous medical improvements in the past. Plastic surgery was first attempted on a survivor of World War One who had lost much of his face. Antibiotics were a result of World War Two. And all American wars have caused an acceleration in the quality of trauma treatment.

So now to the second news item, this one from BBC.com: “Stem cell ‘major discovery’ claimed.” As the article relates, scientists at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Japan can now produce stem cells quickly by dipping blood cells into acid; the acid shocks the cells into becoming “pluripotent”–that is, they can be induced into becoming any type of tissue.

If this finding proves out, then not only has the ethical debate over embryonic stem cells been transcended, but we are also about to enter into a world in which it’s relatively easy to produce new organs of all kinds. And that’s good news for all of us.

Yet surprisingly, officials in Washington, D.C. has not been much interested in medical-scientific breakthroughs. For reasons the Beltway will have to explain, the healthcare debate in D.C. has revolved around health insurance, as opposed to health itself. That is, politicos argue over Obamacare, pro and con, ignoring the possibility of breakout scientific transformation. 

It’s fine to argue about health insurance, including mandates and all the rest, but D.C. should also be alert to the opportunities actually to cure disease–because cures could make healthcare really cheap. Since the advent of the polio vaccine back in the 50s, for example, we no longer spend much of anything on polio. It was science, not insurance, that made the difference.

Indeed, a moment’s reflection should tell us that while health insurance is important, health is more important. Remsburg had health insurance, through DOD and then VA, but if trauma science hadn’t advanced over the years, he would have either been dead on the scene in Afghanistan or in a coma for the rest of his life here in the US. 

So now the questions: Can we build on the successes of Remsburg’s care to create new kinds of stem-cell-generated tissue and organs? And can we use the same sort of “command focus” to advance medical breakthroughs that help not only wounded warriors, but all of us?

If those aren’t questions that the elite political class seems interested in answering, perhaps it’s time to put some command focus on them. 


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