By Don C. Reed
Forty-five years ago, when my daughter Desiree was about to be born, I was in the delivery room to support my wife Gloria, and to greet our daughter into the world.
I was not entirely sure what to expect. We had been shown a medical movie about the birthing process, which struck me as needlessly graphic. Gloria said my face went pale in certain parts. I had planned on comforting her, but found myself sinking down into my chair, while she patted my hand and told me everything would be all right.
We had practiced the LaMaze breathing techniques, to make birthing easier, going through the exercises and coaching techniques night after night.
But one of my friends warned me: whatever you do, don’t look at the placenta, it will gross you out.
Once in the delivery room, Gloria was a star. She strained her muscles and shouted like an athlete. I stood at her shoulders, whispering encouragement, while mainly trying to stay out of the way. Back then, a husband’s presence in the delivery room was not usual, and the doctor made it clear I would be ejected if problems arose.
But Gloria was busy and the staff soon ignored me, yelling code words like “crowning!” which apparently meant “I can see the top of her head!”
Suddenly, the doctor put a baby in my arms. Desiree Don Reed, middle named in pride after me… Some say newborns are ugly — but not mine! She was dignified, surveying her surroundings. She looked up at me, smiled briefly, then turned her attention to her fingers, closing them into a fist, like what is this?
The nurse took her from me, and I felt like growling. But then an intern handed me some lime Jello, saying Gloria could eat something now. I tried to feed her, but she was too tired to chew. The little green chunks fell out of her mouth.
And then, on a corner of the bed, I saw it: the placenta. It was just a limp torn plastic looking white bag. There were a few streaks of blood on it, but nothing gross or shocking. I felt…gratitude. In my mind I actually said “thank you” to the placenta, which had sheltered my daughter inside the womb, all those long months.
But what if there had been something wrong with the placenta, that protective connection between mother and unborn child?
“Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication…(which) threatens 58% of all pregnancies. It has major effects on blood pressure and kidney function of the mother (and) is responsible for a significant proportion of maternal deaths and growth restricted babies …”
It never occurred to me Gloria might be at risk. We were just two young twentysomethings, going to the hospital to pick up our baby! Our thoughts were all on our soontobeborn child — with never a worry…
“On an average day in California, 149 babies are born prematurely. Many of these babies will require weeks of care in an…intensive care unit… at an average cost of $125,000…compared to $1,500 (for) a baby born at (normal) term…
Dr. Mara Parast, a CIRM-funded scientist of the University of California at San Diego, is trying to reduce that suffering, and expense.
A difficult challenge. For one thing, the usual test subjects, rats and mice, do not get preeclampsia the way people do.
The main problem in preeclampsia is a shortage of “trophoblasts” a cell that builds and repairs the placenta.
There are two kinds of trophoblasts: syncitiotrophoblasts, (syncityotrophoblasts) which pass nourishment from mother to unborn baby, and invasive trophoblasts, which help make blood.
Already, Dr, Parast has made one stem cell model of diseased trophoblasts , and another for healthy ones; that way, she can compare and contrast, maybe use the healthy stem cells to combat the sick ones — or test new medications.
“(Her) work focuses on the stem cells that give rise to the placenta… Her lab’s stem cell model — a first — (may) be used to study stages of placental development.
The CIRM grant will fund continuation of this work…to identify potential stem cell-based therapies for treating preeclampsia without… premature delivery.”
A valuable project!
But… what if the young doctor had not been able to get a grant? The average age of scientists getting their first NIH grant is between 43 and 45.
(“According to NIH data, the average age at which PhD scientists receive their first R01 grant — a sign of a successful research career — has increased from 35.7 in 1980 to 43 in 2016. For MD investigators the average age is 45.”
When Dr. Parast tried for her first grant, she was 35. If the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) had not been there, Dr. Parast might not have found funding for her stem cell research.
Fortunately, this need was foreseen by Bob Klein, the man who began the citizens’ initiative Prop 71, which led to the $3 billion California stem cell program.
I asked him, what was the most important grant? He answered immediately.
“The grants to help young scientists to survive financially”, he said, “while they are getting started in the stem cell field.”
Across the country, research funds are increasingly difficult to find. The primary source of medical research funding, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was very nearly cut by 20% — twenty per cent! Although this draconian slashing was eventually reversed, it was a near thing.
For newer scientists, obtaining grants can be doubly difficult. But the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is helping where it can, and has established 4 separate grants with that purpose:
New Faculty grants I (given to 22 investigators);
New Faculty II (23 recipients);
The Physician Scientist Translational Research Awards (15)
— and the Medical College Repayment Award (5).
Source: Dr. Patricia Olson, chief scientist, CIRM, personal communication.
Without CIRM’s help, 65 scientists might have been lost to the field. Instead, they are working to advance treatments and cures for chronic disease and injury: to ease suffering and save lives.
Dr. Arlene Chiu, CIRM’s former Chief Scientific Officer, remembers: “These grants are designed to encourage (new stem cell) investigators…providing salary and research funding for up to five years, ensuring stable, secure financial support as they begin their … scientific careers.”
Providing a base of stability for brilliant new scientists is just one of many reasons the California stem cell program was made.
And why it must go on.
On November 3rd, vote YES! on Proposition 14: the California Stem Cell Research, Treatments and Cures Initiative of 2020.
This will continue the California stem cell program, as it fights the chronic diseases of California, and America.
Vote YES on Prop 14: protect the lives of unborn children from diseases like pre-eclampsia.
Don C. Reed is the author of “REVOLUTIONARY THERAPIES: How the California Stem Cell Program Saved Lives, Eased Suffering, and Changed the Face of Medicine Forever”, from World Scientific Publishing, Inc., 2020