Conference addresses stem cell controversy

By Jennifer Bussell

The University tackled the national controversy over human embryonic stem cell research with a conference to educate journalists on the subject Tuesday. With funding from a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) outreach grant, University professors presented the science of stem cell research, participated in a question and answer panel, and ran a laboratory session for approximately twenty journalists from across North America.

“We feel responsible not only to teach our students but to educate the public at large,” said José Quintans, the University’s HHMI Program Director and master of the biological sciences collegiate division. “In the 21st century you cannot call yourself an educated citizen if you do not have an understanding of critical biological issues.”

There has been growing public concern over stem cell research because human embryos must be destroyed to obtain new embryonic stem (ES) cell lines. Some have offered University of Minnesota scientist Catherine Verfaille’s findings on the plasticity of adult stem cells as evidence that an alternative to ES cells exists. Verfaille gave the keynote address, “Unexpected Potential of Multipotent Adult Stem Cells,” to present her research herself. “The studies I’m going to present I call fortuitous accidents in the laboratory,” Verfaille said.

Unlike most living cells, stem cells are both able to renew themselves and also grow into many different types of cells like skin, muscle, and blood cells. Embryonic stem cells, which are derived from the generic cells created in the initial cell divisions after fertilization, can grow into all cell types found in the organism except those that surround the growing embryo. Organisms also possess different types of adult stem cells that are found in bodily tissues and help to renew the cell populations of those tissues.

These are the cells that make bone marrow transplants successful. As a hematologist, Verfaille worked with bone marrow stem cells, or mesenchymal stem cells, that exist in adults. As members of her lab grew colonies of the cells, they realized that the colonies leveled off growth and were renewing themselves. The researchers discovered in further experiments that they could transform the cells into many other kinds of human cells, not just cells of their tissue. Such abilities “make these cells smell a little like ES cells, although they’re not,” Verfaille said.

Her research, published in the June 20 issue of Nature, together with papers from researchers on other kinds of adult stem cells overturned traditional thinking about stem cells. It now appeared that adult stem cells (called multipotent adult progenitor cells or MAPCs) derived without harming the patient were almost as versatile as ES cells from destroyed embryos.

This further complicated the stem cell debate.

Although no one at the University conducts research with human ES cells, many conduct research with other types of stem cells, and University professor Leon Kass chairs the Presidential Council on Bioethics.

Recently, President Bush announced that American scientists may only study with federal funding human ES cell lines created before August 9, 2001, and they may not derive new cell lines using government money. “A lot of scientists felt that was unnecessarily restrictive,” said Harinder Singh, University professor of molecular genetics and cell biology and HHMI investigator.

Bush’s moratorium focused even more public attention on stem cell research. “It’s a very hot topic,” Quintans said. “The science is so complex and evolving at such a fast rate, it’s virtually impossible for a lay person to be well informed.”

Journalists from organizations such as National Geographic, People Magazine, Newsweek, and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism attended Tuesday’s conference, where they participated in a laboratory workshop and a faculty question and answer panel.

In the laboratory workshop, assistant professor of the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research John Crispino and graduate students in his laboratory showed journalists how mouse embryos are isolated and cultured. Frank Mao of HHMI investigator Bruce Lahn’s laboratory helped journalists inject stem cells into embryos, which are used to generate genetically engineered mice. Journalists were then shown how to coax mouse embryonic stem cells into becoming various types of cells.

University faculty members joined Verfaille in answering journalists’ questions after her talk. Anthony Mahowald, the Louis Block professor and chair of the department of molecular genetics and cell biology, directed the panel. He was joined by Crispino, Singh, Lahn, and Mary Mahowald, assistant director of the Maclean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.

The panel focused on the potential benefits of stem cell research and the importance of involving the public in discussions of the risks.

While stem cells can help scientists study normal cell development and differentiation, they also seem suited for therapeutic applications. For instance, stem cells could be used to clone tissues or even organs that could be transplanted into humans, and the idea of cloning is still frightening to many.

However, scientists caution that most applications are years away from realization. “I think that there is great promise that these [adult stem] cells might be used to treat diseases, but that is a long way away,” Verfaille said.

Until then, according to those on the panel, ethicists, scientists, and the public must maintain dialogue. “Individuals who are affected by a decision have a right to take part in the process that’s going to influence their lives,” Mary Mahowald said.

The conference was sponsored by HHMI, which does provide funding for the isolation of new human ES cell lines. HHMI summer program students at the University attended Verfaille’s lecture and Singh’s stem cell science overview. “I was disappointed at the relative lack of interest from local journalists,” Quintans said. “I think this was a good program…we will probably repeat it.”