Saturday, June 21, 2008

"These Are Early Days"

Stem cells, bioethics, and…vacations to Thailand?

Those were some of the hot topics last week at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the International Society for Stem Cell Research held its sixth annual meeting. The ISSCR kicked off the week with a public workshop and symposium highlighted by some of the world’s leading stem cell experts.

The workshop provided an overview of stem cell biology, which was particularly useful to me because I don’t have a background in science (there were many moments, however, when the discussion passed over my head at a much higher altitude).

Dr. Jonathan Epstein, co-director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, provided a fascinating look at the potential of stem cells to help regenerate heart tissue. Our bodies can regenerate some organs, such as the liver—so why not hearts? Epstein presented a video showing functional heart tissue generated with stem cell technology. The new cells could be seen beating under the microscope, then continuing to beat in unison as they developed into a larger piece of tissue.

Below is a clip showing beating heart cells derived from human embryonic stem cells similar to the one Epstein presented:

For me, Epstein’s presentation magnified the potential of stem cell research. It was only one example of the latest research happening in the labs of researchers around the world. As Epstein was quick to point out, “these are early days.”

Some researchers can’t wait to tap into the potential. As a result, stem cell tourism has popped up in Thailand, China, India, and elsewhere around the globe. The ISSCR unveiled a set of guidelines to halt what its president, Dr. George Daley, calls “the snake oil we’ve seen in medical fraud for centuries.”

But what lies ahead? Dr. Jonathan Moreno, medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed the ethical issues surrounding stem cell research. The moral and metaphysical debate about the status of the human embryo has permeated the political arena over the last decade, and it is likely to continue with the election of a new American president in November. Moreno noted that both Barack Obama and John McCain support stem cell research but have yet to articulate the details and conditions of their policies.

Having made 140 trips to Capitol Hill to educate elected officials about stem cell research, Dr. John Gearhart often finds himself in the center of the political storm. Gearhart remembers his first trip to Congress vividly: “the first person I met asked what it felt like to kill the smallest Americans.” Amy Comstock Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, is also no stranger to members of Congress. CAMR wants to reverse President Bush’s policy on stem cell research, and “will not stop until we get new legislation,” according to Rick.

Whether new legislation is imminent or not, the stem cell debate will no doubt remain heated at the nexus of politics and science.

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