Stem cell conference
Erika Check reports back from the third annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in San Francisco, where scientists and doctors discuss everything from the clinical use of adult and embryonic stem cells, to the laws and cash that
Day 3: Politics as Usual
The conference ended today - time for all the scientists to go back to their labs and get back to work. But unlike in other fields of science, some researchers in this one will go back to work in a climate of uncertainty. Laws that govern stem cell research vary from country to country - and even from state to state.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
At the end of his talk, renowned biologist Jamie Thomson from the University of Wisconsin said he hoped his work would push changes in the US laws that restrict federal funding for stem cell research. Thomson is working on making embryonic stem cell lines free of contamination by animal cells. This work is not eligible for federal funding, but it is crucial for developing cells that could actually be used as treatments.
"I really hope these [lines] will drive the process of changing the federal policy, which is unduly restrictive," Thomson said.
But half an hour after Thomson's talk, James Sherley, a biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), stood up and gave a totally contrary opinion.
Sherley suggested that all stem cell scientists should disclose how many embryos were "destroyed" for the research presented in posters, talks, and published papers.
"It's very easy to do experiments and not keep track of the deaths," Sherley said.
Sherley works on adult stem cells, and is known for his opposition to the use of embryos in stem cell research. He is also fighting a battle for tenure at MIT. Most stem cell scientists disagree with him, but he is not the only member of the stem cell society who feels this way.
No doubt these constant political and ethical debates are annoying for scientists who wish they could just get on with their research. But from an outsider's perspective - including mine - it's rather heartening to see that these sorts of discussions actually happen here.
Day 2: What's in a name?
When I say "cloning", what comes to mind? The Raelians? Dolly the sheep? A human baby? You probably don't conjure up an image of responsible scientists doing mundane research at a lab bench. Many scientists remain convinced that if they could overcome this problem, they would erase a lot of the public opposition to their work.
For instance, at last year's meeting, this society decided to encourage everyone to call a certain procedure "nuclear transfer". This procedure, in which the nucleus of one cell is sucked out and injected into an egg whose own nucleus has been removed, previously went by many monikers, including "therapeutic cloning", a term meant to convey the fact that it produces a exact genetic copy of a certain cell. The term is also meant to distinguish this procedure from "reproductive cloning", which aims to make a human baby. Why make the official name change to "nuclear transfer"? Partly to get away from the loaded term "cloning", which inspires nightmare images for most of us.
Today, a scientist from Seattle told the society that it should look at other words that draw public attention and concern - such as "embryo". This is a hard word to get away from. The stem cells that give rise to all the parts of the human body are called "embryonic stem cells" because one takes them out of a human "embryo", which is generally considered to be a human organism in its early stages of development. But, this scientist said, this word is a lightning rod and the field needs to get away from it.
"If we adopt the view that an embryo means a cell is going to implant to make a baby, and none of what we're doing is [making] cells to implant to make a baby, and we come up with different terminology, I think we will have more long-term political success," the scientist said.
That suggestion drew applause from the crowd of scientists in the room, and outgoing ISSCR President Len Zon agreed that the society should set up a "nomenclature" committee to look at naming issues.
Obviously, cutting the word "embryo" out of scientific discourse won't change the minds of the people who really do have serious moral opposition to this work. It could, however, remove a red flag that the field's die-hard opponents use to rile up the general public.
But it's also possible that this strategy could backfire completely. "Therapeutic cloning" wasn't something most people had ever heard of before this whole field got started - but most of the public has heard of an embryo, and many people probably have an idea of what an embryo is. Scientists should think hard about how it will look if they decide to distance themselves from moral concern about embryos by simply deciding to call them something else.
Day 1: A Hero's Welcome
By happy coincidence, the third annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research is in San Francisco - home of the brand-spanking new California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the $3 billion stem cell research initiative approved by the state's voters last fall. During day 1, California gave the 2,100 scientists here a big, huge, wet kiss - part of a charm offensive intended to lure the best and brightest talent to the state.
Robert Klein, chairman of the board of the California Institute, compared San Francisco to the great city-states of history - Florence, Paris and London - which nurtured academia and science when national governments didn't exist, or weren't interested. Federal funding for stem cell research has been unpredictable and shaky in the United States - but California is stepping in to fill the void, according to Klein. Now, Klein said, all California needs is a few good men.
"You are my heroes," Klein told the assembled scientists. "We must act quickly or the forces against us will reverse the tide."
San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom was even more blunt than Klein. "My job is to convince all 2,100 of you to move to San Francisco," the perfectly coiffed young mayor told the meeting. The city threw free hotel, conference, design and construction services into the original deal that lured the institute here. To get returns on that investment, Newsom is now the stem cell researchers' best friend. Just earlier today, Klein and the mayor formalized their agreement for the Californian institute's headquarters to move into an office a stone's throw away from the spot where the meeting is being held.
It's all pretty impressive - until you realize that this is just going to catch California up to where other countries like South Korea already are. Maybe. The institute has faced its fair share of troubles, like budget shortfalls, and questions about how projects will be overseen. It's still struggling to get off the ground, in fact.
But compare California to the rest of the country for a moment. A few other states have coughed up money for stem cell research, but it doesn't come close to California's bucks. Other states, meanwhile, are actively working to ban this work. And President Bush is trying to quash a move by the national legislature to loosen restrictions on the field.
When you're looking at as bleak a picture as that, a little love must be pretty refreshing.