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Stem cell advances, a call for legal euthansia and the great blood donation debate

This morning brings us news of a huge advance in stem cell medicine. A 10 year-old girl has been given a successful transplant of a vein made from her own stem cells – the first operation of its kind, reports the BBC.

The girl had been suffering from a blocked hepatic portal vein, a condition which can lead to internal bleeding, stunted development and even death. The usual treatment is to replace it with a vein taken from elsewhere in the body – a procedure fraught with other problems.

However, a team of scientists at the University of Gothenburg, led by Professor Suchitra Sumitran-Holdgersson, managed to grow the patient a new vein. They took a small section of vein from a dead donor and stripped it of cells, leaving a tubular protein scaffold. This was then seeded with the girl’s stem cells to create a new vein for transplant. The surgeons say the girl has experienced a ‘striking’ improvement in her quality of life one year on from the operation.

The editor of the BMJ has called for legal euthanasia, likening a ‘bad death’ to a ‘botched abortion’. Dr Fiona Godlee said that a change in the law to allow ill adults to end their lives is ‘almost inevitable’ and urged the medical profession not to oppose it.

‘But it may take a while,’ she added, ‘and it may not happen until we properly value death as one of life’s central events and learn to see bad deaths in the same damning light as botched abortions.’

The BMA is currently opposed to assisted dying but the issue is tabled for debate at the BMA conference later this month.

Today is World Blood Donor Day. UK donors are being asked to help boost stocks by 30% – an admirable aim, and one that might be more easily achievable, according to a comment in the Guardian, if a sizeable chunk of society were not banned from donating.

Dr Tom Riddington, writing in the Guardian, asks why a monogamous gay man may be banned from giving blood while a promiscuous straight man isn’t.

In 2011 the law was changed to allow gay men to give blood – but they must still abstain from sex for at least a year. Riddington condemns this ‘archaic’ approach, writing: ‘A gay man who uses condoms and only has oral sex with a monogamous partner is immediately excluded from donating. A heterosexual man who does not use contraception and has many partners is not. Objectivity is ignored: one person is defined by his sexuality, the other isn’t.’