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Leaders in Stem Cell Research Debate at Smith

By April Simpson ’06

For the person with a spinal cord injury who is confined to a wheelchair, stem cell research could offer the chance to walk again. For doctors, this research extends the possibility of reversing the progressive loss of mental capacity found in Alzheimer’s patients.

Yet many argue that this revolutionizing area of modern medicine could potentially deprive an embryo of the right to develop into a human being.
Reconciling the two positions is difficult. “It’s purely a political question of how much the U.S. wants to be dictated by religious positions,” said Sarah Franklin ’82, professor of social studies of biomedicine at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Leaders in the field of embryonic stem cell research delivered lectures and debated these issues and others at “The Promise and Politics of Stem Cell Research” conference held in Weinstein Auditorium in March. The conference, sponsored by the Office of the President and the 2004-05 Louise W. and Edmund J. Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, was part of the institute’s yearlong project Biotechnology and World Health.

The Kahn Institute supports collaborative research among faculty and students. This year, 18 faculty and student fellows representing nine departments are researching such topics as the relationship between biotechnology and hunger and the ways in which religion and politics affect the reproductive health and lives of women in Ireland.

Embryonic stem cells are of particular interest to the scientific and medical communities because of their immortality and their ability to develop into virtually any other cell made by the human body. The debate over the use of these cells springs from their retrieval from in vitro fertilization clinics, fears that the cells will be used for human cloning and a question that also encompasses the abortion issue.

“The crux of the matter, in my opinion, revolves around the question of when life begins,” said Douglas Melton, Harvard University Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences. “Life, or personhood, is a process,” he added.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney supports state funding for stem cell research excluding cloning. He also supports guidelines that permit the development of embryonic stem cell lines from surplus embryos in fertility clinics, but he does not support the creation of new embryos for research.

National policy limits public research funding to support only work on previously established cell lines, but private funding has no such restrictions.

“The day that stem cells cure a patient with spinal cord injury or Parkinson’s disease is the day the political debate ends,” noted Sidney H. Golub, former executive director of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Behavior and a member of the Smith College Board of Trustees.

Although none of the Kahn student fellows is focusing specifically on stem cells, Smith Deborah Haas-Wilson, professor of economics and panel chair, says that the current political debate was a common topic of interest among fellows across academic disciplines.

The conference included perspectives that offered feminist critiques, highlighting the political history of embryonic stem cell research and its relationship with the women’s movement, and that stressed the importance of educating the public and becoming personally involved in the political process.

“From the Kahn’s perspective, the conference embodied what the Kahn is all about -- the collaborations and the interdepartmental perspectives on issues,” says Kahn fellow Rachel Shoichet ’05, who is exploring family and reproductive technologies through firsthand accounts of doctors specializing in in vitro fertilization. “Stem cells are the perfect example because of the [interest] that this research has generated so far.”

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