In a speech Sept. 23, "Stem Cells: Critical Science, Policy and Ethics," sponsored by the Center for Bioethics at P&S, Executive Vice President and Dean Gerald Fischbach called for all Columbia scientists to become in volved in the ethical and policy debates on human embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
"I don't want to overstate the benefits of stem cells, which we still haven't seen, but I've seen few things in my career that are as promising for restoring lost tissues, not just treating symptoms. We're simply not going to know unless we do the research," he said. "I wish all of you would get involved. The level of discourse about stem cell biology in the newspapers, in the lay public, and in Congress is abysmally low. People have very vague ideas about common words that we should all be comfortable with, like zygote, or embryo, or cloning. Our future depends on our ability to communicate, and unless we can get these terms straight and demystify them, I think we're in for a hard time."
During the talk, Dr. Fischbach described the early development of human embryos, the history of stem cell research, somatic cell nuclear transfer (also called therapeutic cloning), and the latest legal and ethical developments.
The ethical controversy centers on the source of embryonic stem cells. Human cells can be derived from the inner cell mass of 14-day old blastocysts obtained from infertility clinics, though the technique is currently off-limits for researchers in the United States using federal funds. Federally funded scientists are restricted to using 11 stem cell lines that were created before Aug. 9, 2001, though Dr. Fischbach said only three of those are easily accessible to scientists outside industry. There are no limits on privately funded researchers, and several universities, including Columbia, are establishing stem cell research centers with private donations.
The second, potential source for human embryonic stem cells are blastocysts created from somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same technique that created Dolly the sheep. Last year, the President's Council on Bioethics recommended a four-year moratorium on the use of the technique for acquiring stem cells. "A delay that long could be costly," Dr. Fischbach said.
Although some ethicists who oppose research in stem cells and therapeutic cloning fear a "slippery slope" that will lead to reproductive cloning, Dr. Fischbach said scientists have already proven capable of regulating themselves, referring to the Asilomar conference in California in the 1970s that set up regulations for recombinant DNA research.
In essence, the debate comes down to beliefs about the beginning of human life. "The blastocyst and the next stage in development, the very early gastrula, have no central nervous system," Dr. Fischbach said. "We do many things with tissues and organs from living subjects who have been declared brain dead and this has saved enormous numbers of lives."