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The Stem Cell Divide
JULY 2005
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In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Brian Strauss

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Stem Cells

    While in Singapore I visited a doctor experimenting with adult stem cell transplants. He would take a mix of skin cells and stem cells from the white area of a patient's healthy eye and transplant those cells onto the person's other eye, from which diseased tissue or a tumor had been surgically removed. The cells act as a sort of regenerative poultice, forming fresh new eye tissue.
    While in the waiting room preparing to meet a patient who had come to the doctor with a disfiguring mass on one eye, I couldn't help but play a game of funny faces with a young girl sitting with her mother. With her big, brown, and very beautiful eyes, she reminded me of my own eight-year-old daughter, who I missed while traveling.
    The doctor called me in. He showed me pictures of his patient's deformed eye. A large, ugly, reddish-brown growth resembling ground beef had spread over the white area and was creeping over the cornea. Sadly, the patient had been increasingly shunned by friends and strangers, who were repulsed by the mass. "Now I'd like you to meet the patient," he said, and he called in my playmate from the waiting room.
    It's fun writing about medical miracles—except when I am reminded that the people waiting for these miracles are real patients. That's especially true when the patients are children. So it was a difficult day when I visited the Duke University Medical Center to watch Cedric get his stem cell infusion. For me, the colorful decorations on the walls of the children's corridor only added to the sense of slow-motion tragedy. And although Cedric himself seemed unfazed by his pending treatment, the stress in his parents' faces gave away just how difficult it has been to cope with his years-long series of brushes with death.
    At one point I wandered out of Cedric's room and walked down the hall to relieve some of that tension. I met a young father and struck up a conversation. But there was no respite in his story: His son had been born with a rare genetic condition for which there was no effective treatment. It took a couple of years for a proper diagnosis, by which time the boy's little sister was born—with the same condition. She was in the hospital that day. Adorable. In need of a miracle. 
    I had arranged in advance to interview several doctors, scientists, and business leaders involved in Singapore's stem cell revolution. But despite months of preparatory contacts before my trip, not a single government leader would agree to meet with me to discuss the sensitive topic of how the city-state was fostering research involving human embryos.
    After arriving in Singapore, I was bemoaning the government's inaccessibility while having lunch with a local media affairs person I'd met. Her eyes lit up. "Those offices are nearby," she said. "Why don't we just show up at their door?" Visions of Geraldo Rivera and Michael Moore shimmered in my mind. Why not?
    We strode down the street and into the lobby and had the receptionist call up to the head of the agency that oversees much of Singapore's stem cell support. The official's assistant answered and seemed confused by my argument that her boss had a duty to speak to me. "Didn't you get my last e-mail?" she asked. "You have an appointment today at 1:15."
    I hadn't seen that    e-mail. I looked at my watch. It was exactly 1:15.

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