Stem Cells and the Left.

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[The following was written early last month for the “Viewpoints” comments section on the Scottish Left Project website. Modelled on Syriza, the SLP wants to build a “strong left-wing opposition” for the Holyrood elections in 2016. My article has not yet featured on the SLP website, though I’ve been told that it might pop up in the future. Some readers on the Left will have trouble enjoying this article due to its incurable Unionist predilections. I explain all of this because “Stem Cells and the Left” is intended to be read only in light of the array of contributions to the SLP. Together they confront the question of what the Left in Scotland should do and where it should go.]

With Conservatism triumphant at Westminster and budget cuts at every turn, the UK Left does not look the most fun place to be in the coming years. When the Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper insists that her party needs, “to help families and also to convince them that we can match their ambitions for the future,” the disillusioned voter could be forgiven for assuming that she, Labour, and indeed most of the Left have no remaining strategies for making these words mean anything. The predominant impression that her party gives today is one of intellectual airlessness. Cooper is right to see that Labour needs “bolder ambitions for the future” and now all that she has to do is to find some.

Cooper’s quest may appear strange because if you look beyond politics, then there is plenty of optimism and ambition in the news at the moment. This year, for example, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has for the first time approved funding for a Phase 3 clinical trial (into fighting skin cancer) with an award of $18 million. This adds to an array of exciting ongoing Californian medical trials, which include an attempt by the company ViaCyte to engineer an artificial pancreas that can withstand rejection by the recipient’s immune system: the Holy Grail of treating diabetes.

Why does today’s Left take a negligible interest in these developments? The Left has been historically aligned with a fervour for science, from Lenin’s equation of Communism with “the electrification of the whole country” to HG Wells’ musings on the creation of a “World Brain” to the future worlds imagined by Scotland’s socialist sci-fi writers Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod. Yet the Left now seems to be increasingly indifferent to technological progress, apparently consigning it and questions of social change to entirely separate, watertight containers.

When we read about advances in stem cell therapy, we don’t tend to look to left-leaning political parties to bring these things into our own lives. Perhaps we assume that markets, if left to themselves, will one day make these remote technologies available to us. Henceforth, America, one of the most consciously capitalist societies in the world, has come to seem like the natural home for stem cell innovation.

Of course, it is more complicated than that. In 2004 California held a referendum in which its people decided to invest $3 billion of their public money into stem cell research. The state was making a stand against the Bush administration’s hostility to regenerative medicine. The stem cell scientist and educator Paul Knoepfler has reasoned that, “one has to keep in the mind the more challenging climate back in 2004 to appreciate just how revolutionary CIRM was at that time.”

If voters in California are capable of passing a “revolutionary” judgment upon this technology, then why is it absent from party politics in the UK? During the last Westminster parliament, £25 million of public money was allocated over four years to the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform. David Cameron last year launched the £100 million Alzheimer’s Research UK campaign, from which a reported £66 million of government money will be spent this year. But he otherwise gives an appearance of being as earnest about regenerative medicine as he is about everything else. Stem cell therapy is advancing at a stately pace, under the distant supervision of the parties in power and with those in opposition automatically agreeing with the existing, incremental funding commitments. There is no urgency and no debate.

In fact, you can search in vain for any quote from a UK opposition leader about regenerative medicine, and the closest you will get is some words in 2009 from Nick Clegg’s wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, urging mothers to donate their used umbilical cord blood to stem cell banks. That a political leader’s wife had more to say about stem cells than her elected husband comically indicates the depoliticisation of the subject.

The £25 million for the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform may reassure you that something is being done about stem cell therapy, but when weighed against the more than a hundred billion which the NHS in England and Scotland receives every year, then it is clear which is the ocean and which the drop. The NHS claims that it spends £27 million per day treating diabetes, more than the Platform has been given over four years to supposedly move the story on.

Here is a thought experiment for you. Imagine that these figures were reversed. Imagine that the UK’s diabetic population was told that they had to pay for their own insulin, with £25 million provided over four years to intervene only in the direst cases. And then imagine that stem cell researchers were given £27 million per day to cure conditions such as diabetes as quickly as possible. At first, people would be outraged by this reversal, evoking as it does the Soviet morality of making everyone endure horrendous deprivations so that future generations might at some point benefit. But would people begin to gradually recognise something stirring and visionary within such a sacrifice, a Blitz spirit which might break through to today’s normally jaded UK electorate?

In the UK, installing high-speed rail to Birmingham seems to be as monumental an undertaking as a moon mission. This risk-averse political climate is never going to be hospitable to a massive state expenditure on new technologies. What is altogether more concerning, however, is that the Left, which is meant to be at the radical end of the political spectrum, is seldom up in arms about regenerative medicine. The risks are enormous, not least because stem cells share many similarities with cancer cells. We could spend millions on experimental treatments which end up killing their recipients. Yet the potential rewards are enormous too. Imagine human lifespans extended for hundreds of years, with organ failure becoming as rare in the UK as smallpox and tuberculosis.

You cannot remain serious about regenerative medicine, or respect the fullness of its possibilities, without agreeing to gamble on a colossal scale. There are no two ways about it: industrialising stem cell therapy for the masses will require a revolutionary transformation of UK healthcare and the role of the state.

Many stem cell applications prospectively put big pharmaceutical spenders out of the picture. Cultivating stem cells to replace animals or human participants in clinical trials has an obvious appeal for big pharma. Reconnecting the two halves of a patient’s spine with their own olfactory ensheathing cells requires no new medical product. So should the state represent the interests of all patients by taking regenerative medicine out of the market economy and assuming responsibility for the vast costs of research? If so, then what from the government’s current spending will have to be forfeited? Or should the majority of future NHS surgery be given over to private companies, to allow them a means of profiting from the autologous therapies which they would, in turn, be expected to supply? Socialists should be engaging with these dilemmas, writing about them and publicly debating them.

Regenerative medicine should also fire up socialists because it provides something which the Left, from Yvette Cooper down, is presently lacking: “bolder ambitions for the future” and an exhilarating political journey. In an era of mass cynicism towards public institutions, when the Mid Staffs scandal is ten times more talked about than the stem cell pioneer Shinya Yamanaka, regenerative medicine arrives with the implication of a democratic state which can actually do things to improve people’s lives. Where the Left has so far contributed silence, it should be shouting at the top of its voice. We should be looking to it for education, inspiration, anger, and revolutionary leadership.

[DISCLAIMER: Tychy has barely a passing knowledge of medicine and biology.]

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