Biology might be a way to answer tough questions about stem cell research, University of California professor Evan Snyder said Tuesday.
Snyder, who is also a program director at the Burnham Institute, spoke to a crowd of approximately 200 at Coffman Union about issues surrounding personhood, private versus public funding and the possibility of future treatments for patients with chronic diseases.
Snyder said the personhood debate of embryonic stem cells could be explained using biology. He said the end of personhood for an adult happens when the nervous system ceases to function, and that definition might also apply to embryonic stem cells.
“Embryonic stem cells are not individualized yet,” Snyder said. “Embryos have no nervous system and, therefore, no personhood.”
Other types of stem cells appear to be plagued with setbacks for research. He said adult stem cells have been problematic because they are not able to develop in the same way as embryonic stem cells.
Umbilical cord cells, which were thought to be promising, are not as adaptable for certain situations as researchers had hoped, Snyder said.
“The argument is, ‘We’re doing harm if we go into the embryos,’ ” he said. “But to have resources and not use them might be equally as sinful.”
But Pro-Life Law Society President Tony Kriesel, who did not attend the event, said he opposes embryonic stem cell research.
“I think whenever you’re creating embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them, it is against the dignity of the human person,” he said.
He said he thinks adult stem cell research appeared to be more promising.
“It has actually made strides in research,” he said.
This fall, California escalated the stem cell research race when voters passed a proposition giving $3 billion to fund the research.
Snyder said the government, ethics-interest groups and others will oversee the research in California, but research in the private sector lacks that accountability.
“The best research is done in academia,” Snyder said. “Research done in public scrutiny can only lead to better research.”
Snyder said the Bush administration’s federal policy regarding stem cell research will have a chilling effect on research, training, scientific integrity and patient safety.
He said patients can benefit directly from public stem cell research.
“When funding is limited, expertise is limited,” he said. “Americans are looking elsewhere, and it’s dangerous.”
Stem cell research does not provide false hope to patients, said Paul Tuite, a professor and University of Minnesota Movement Disorders Clinic director.
“Most patients understand it might not cure them today or in the future,” he said. “They understand the complexity of the issue.”
First-year Spanish student Ashley Kollberg said she has a personal interest in stem cell research. Her uncle was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and she said she came to the event to find out about new research or trials regarding stem cells.
She said she was surprised by the crowd, which varied from students to elderly people.
“Everyone has their own interest in this, whether it’s the ethical debate, the research or the possibilities,” she said.
The event increased her understanding of the value of stem cell research, she said.
First-year biology student Seth Flaaten said he is interested in the medical field, and he attended the event because stem cell research is under intense scrutiny.
Flaaten said he agreed with Snyder’s ideas about stem cell research.
“To make good decisions about stem cells, we have to start with good facts and good research,” he said.