Forum explores pros and cons of stem cell research

by Amy Horst

A guffaw and a hiss or two slipped from the mouths of a few audience members during discussions between the public and University researchers about the ethics and science of human embryonic stem cell research.

But, in general, the approximately 80 people who came Tuesday night to Coffman Union Theater to learn about the procedure – which has incited protests throughout the nation – remained quiet and dignified.

“One thing that has struck me in this debate is the compassion of people on both sides,” said Steven Calvin, an assistant professor in the Medical School.

The forum aimed to educate the public on embryonic stem cell research and get feedback regarding the University’s February announcement that it plans to use private funds for research on human embryonic stem cells.

Human embryonic stem cells come from a fertilized human egg that is approximately a week old, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Embryonic stem cell research is best done at a public institution such as the University because private companies do not have to disclose their actions and methods to the public, said Jeff Kahn, director of the University’s Center for Bioethics.

“The crucial thing in controversial research is that there be thoughtful controls and oversight, and the best way to get control and accountability is to get adequate funding,” Kahn said.

Calvin, who is also co-chairman of the Program in Human Rights in Medicine at the University, said he opposed the research.

“There are certain boundaries, and once you’ve crossed them, it’s hard to go back,” Calvin said. “Science may tell us what is possible, but it cannot tell us what we should do.”

Catherine Verfaillie, director of the University’s Stem Cell Institute, said that although there are some ethical and scientific problems with embryonic stem cell research, the University should extend its work in that area.

She also said it is incorrect to assume research done on adult stem cells, which are taken from adult bone marrow, can accomplish the same things as embryonic stem cell research.

“Even though we have found (adult stem cells) to be more potent than we originally thought, we shouldn’t just put blinders on and say this will fix everything so let’s not worry about the other stem cells,” Verfaillie said.

She and other University researchers currently use a limited line of federally approved embryonic stem cells to look into treating various diseases.

Supporters of stem cell research said those existing lines do not represent the full range of human diversity, and they also question the embryos’ usefulness because some have been tainted by mouse cells.

University researchers are looking into using stem cells to repair damaged hearts, treat and cure Parkinson’s disease and strokes, and treat inherited genetic diseases.