BBC2, Tuesday 27 October 2009
'Fix me' I presume was a title dreamed up by someone at the BBC to catch the interest of the viewer in the subject of stem cell therapy that for many may seem to be beyond their understanding. And this was my gut reaction when asked to review this programme: would I really understand enough to know what scientists are trying to achieve? However, I am aware that this subject is likely to touch us all, and if not us then our children, and it needs to be discussed openly in a form that we can all understand. Horizons mainly managed this by showing the journeys of three young adults who are looking for 'cures' for their different medical problems by using either embryonic or adult stem cells. The programme tried to show how the use of stem cells could revolutionise medicine as we know it, although the complexities are immense. It also touched on the darker side of the use and abuse of stem cells and asked the viewers to consider are some of the promises too good to be true?
The programme followed, (or rather I should imagine 'took') the three individuals to different parts of the world to show them different advances in research into stem cell therapy. This could have been a risky endeavour psychologically for the three participants as they could see the science developing in front of their eyes, but in the end they had to realise that they most probably would not be able to use it themselves as the research so far is not advanced sufficiently to benefit them.
Sophie's life changed when she had a car accident just after leaving school resulting in severe spinal damage. She appeared to be willing to try anything to avoid being in a wheel chair. She went to California to meet a young man who had been treated in an Indian Clinic, (where there is no regulation). Viewed on the Clinic's website he appeared to be able to walk, viewed in the flesh the vastly expensive stem cell injections had not improved his mobility at all. She questioned a Clinician, who monitored the 'before and after' effects of stem cell therapy in China. He was quite blunt that the only positive after effects are usually psychological if people accept their disability and get on with their lives. He felt stem cell therapy (the way it was administered in unregulated clinics) appeared to have no greater effect than physiotherapy. Without clinical trials, he said what happens is unethical, playing on people's hopes, like 'snake oil'. More positive was a trip to the Reeve-Irvine Centre (named after Christopher Reeve, the actor,) where tests were being carried out on rats to restore damaged sensory and motor cells.
Anthony had had a leg amputated after a serious rugby injury, compounded by complicated negligent treatment and consequent infection. He went to Finland to see how adult stem cells were being used to regenerate bone tissue in a patient who had to have part of his skull replaced. This was followed by a visit to a laboratory to look at the regeneration of limbs in Mexican Salamanders. It is their ability not to create scar tissue and immediately start regenerating limb buds that has given biologists the hope that one day this may be applied to humans. He also saw experiments going on in Texas with ex-service men in trying to regenerate tissue by using 'Pixy-dust', which is a dust made from high protein cells taken from pigs' bladders, and acts as a homing device for the patients' own stem cells, stopping scarring and helping growth.
Dean, the third participant was in his mid 30's and had children. He had discovered that he had a serious heart condition which would shorten his life and could be passed onto his children. He looked at a double-blind trial at the London Chest Hospital using patients' own adult stem cells to regenerate heart tissue. He also went to America to look at experiments into building a new heart in a laboratory.
I found it interesting that so much of the experimental work that these participants went to see was taking place in America, considering President Bush had stopped embryo stem cell research, and this has only recently been overturned by President Obama. I did find myself wondering about funding and commercial interests, and would have liked this to have been developed in the programme. This subject will always be controversial but it could be tragic if it is ever used as a political football again.
I was left at the end with the three participants quite poignant desires for the future, Sophie to be able to 'dance the night away', Anthony to be able to walk barefooted with his dog on a beach, and Dean to be able to kick a football with his children. Not a lot to ask. Unfortunately the science as shown in this programme is not ready for three miracle cures, but one can't but hope that it will be soon, and some people's hope of being 'fixed' may be realised.