Who is Timothy J. Atchison?

12 04 2011

By: Natalie Shuster

Last week Timothy’s name swept headlines nationwide as information about this University of South Alabama’s nursing student, was released. Timothy, also known as T.J. was the first patient to receive a drug made from embryonic stem cells, after a car crash lead to a devastating spinal chord injury.

After remaining anonymous for six months, Timothy’s name was finally released to the public, leading to internet rumors and a whirlwind of media coverage. This stem cell injection was one of the first carefully deigned attempts to study the impacts of embryonic stem cell therapies within humans. If it is shown to have positive effects, the results of this study could have very strong implications for further funding and policy making around stem cell research.

According to Timothy and researchers at Geron and the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, it is too soon for scientists to know whether the injected cells are able to help repair damage after a spinal cord injury such as the one suffered in Timothy’s car crash.

Timothy is not unique in his plight. In America today, there are over 250,000 people living with spinal chord injuries. There is currently no cure for either of the two spinal cord injury classifications. Thus, the results of this experiment could be an important step towards finding one.

Embryonic stem cell research has been a highly debated topic over the past few decades. Reaching media salience during the Bush administration, the issue has fallen to the wayside since the Obama/McCain elections in 2008. Proponents of stem cell research have historically argued that increased research and the use of embryonic stem cells have the potential to replace damaged cells and cure diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, burns, or spinal cord problems like Timothy’s.  This communications frame of social progress and development is one often used by stem cell research supporters. It emphasizes our civic duty to support scientific inquiries that can eradicate diseases and positions the use of stem cells as a public health issue.

Conversely, opponents to stem cell research and the use of embryonic injections similar to those used on Timothy, would argue a morality component and the ethical concerns behind the use of embryonic stem cells. They would frame a debate against the use of this injection as the “destruction of life, of God’s creation” and the “equivalent to murder.” Right to life blogs have positioned Timothy’s treatment as an “ethically and medically dubious experiment using embryonic stem cells.”

Regardless, of one’s political and religious affiliation, all members of both political parties as well as those who citizens for and against embryonic stem cell use, will be actively watching the development and results of this experiment.

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