On the day I was supposed to depart for Abuja, Nigeria last month with the Leon Sullivan Foundation, my cousin Audrey Livingston died in Johnson City, Tenn.
She was 47 years old and had been living with scleroderma, a chronic connective tissue disease, for eight years. Of course, I cancelled my trip to Africa to be with my family in Tennessee.
For several years, I had watched as my cousin's extremities were removed one by one. First, a finger, then another finger, then one toe and another toe and still more fingers and still more toes.
I've never seen anyone go through so much without ever complaining. But that was Audrey, that was my cousin.
And she didn't let her illness prevent her from being at places she felt she had to be. Over the past year alone, she and I lost three uncles on the same side of the family. Audrey attended every funeral because, above all else, she was a person with a deep love for her family.
It took a long time for doctors to diagnose Audrey's illness as scleroderma or systematic sclerosis. It is a rare disease for which there is no cure. According to information distributed by the Scleroderma Foundation and the Mayo Clinic, it is a progressive disease that leads to the hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues, the fibers that provide the body's framework and support.
Essentially, the body's immune system turns against itself by overproducing collagen, a fibrous type of protein that makes up the body's connective tissue. Unfortunately, there is no treatment to stop the overproduction of collagen.
But if a cure is to be found, it could well come from stem cell research. And that's why President Bush's decision to veto stem cell research legislation is personal with me.
After doctors in Johnson City, Tenn. failed to accurately identify Audrey's disease, they sent her to the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., where she was finally diagnosed as having scleroderma.
Not surprisingly, Duke is now leading a national study to test whether stem cell transplants can reconstruct defective immune systems. If successful, the study could reverse the disease rather than merely alleviate the symptoms. It is funded by a $20 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Joseph Shanahan, M.D., a Duke University rheumatologist, told reporters that investigators wanted to determine whether the immune system can be suppressed for a year in order to take control of the disease or whether it's necessary to repopulate the immune system with purified stem cells.
As part of this fascinating study, stem cells are extracted from the blood, processed and stored for later use. Chemotherapy and radiation are used to destroy the immune system, which is then repopulated by the patient's stored blood stems.
To be fair, Bush does not oppose all stem cell research, and it appears that he might not object to the research being done at Duke. However, he vetoed a bill passed by both the House and Senate — his first and only veto after more than five years in office — authorizing certain types of stem cell research.
Although the legislation would have prohibited federal funding for the creation of embryos solely for research, it would have allowed research using embryos stored at fertility clinics and donated by couples who no longer need them.
Research posted on the National Institutes of Health Web site reflects the excitement medical experts have about this new research.
"Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body," the site observes. "Serving as a sort of repair system for the body ... when a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to ... become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell or a red blood cell, or a brain cell."
For those who claim to be pro-life, this is an opportunity to prove it. It won't bring back my cousin, but it might spare others needless pain.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service.