Stem cell debate hits Penn



Two Penn professors made a powerful case for embryonic stem cell research at a Sept. 21 House Democratic Policy Committee hearing here on campus.

The hearing, held at Penn’s Biomedical Research Building, and hosted by Representative Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia), brought together legislators from across the state to hear expert testimony from scientists, lawyers and others with a stake in the controversial debate.

Arthur Caplan, director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics and Stephen Emerson, a professor of medicine and chief of the Hematology-Oncology Division in the School of Medicine, set the tone of the hearing with forceful arguments in favor of stem cell research.

President Bush’s severe curtailing of funding for embryonic stem cell research has led many states to pursue their own stem cell strategies. California plans to spend $3 billion over 10 years for the research, while New Jersey and New York have launched their own ambitious projects. Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states that provides no public funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Some legislators in the House of Representatives, including Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) want to change that, and are working on proposals to bring public investment to stem cell research in the state.

In his testimony, Caplan highlighted the global importance of the research by showing a map of countries—including Canada, Australia, the U.K., Singapore, China and Korea—that are already committing major resources to it. “The world believes in [its] value and importance,” he said. “Are we prepared to fall behind? … If you have a child with juvenile diabetes do you want to have to send them elsewhere for clinical trials?”

On the ethical questions raised by embryonic stem cell research—which is controversial because the embryos have to be destroyed to obtain the cells—Caplan reminded his audience that “life begins with conception, but not every conception begins a life.”

There are tens of thousands of embryos in fertility clinics in Pennsylvania, he noted, that “no one’s going to do anything with.”

To the objection put forward by Rep. Thomas Tangretti (D-Westmoreland) that “a fertilized egg is a human being,” Caplan countered that though this was a good moral principle, more embryos are made than are ever used. Some are put aside, some are destroyed. “Embryos are potential life,” he said, “but when you look at a child in a wheelchair, it’s an opportunity to have real breakthroughs.”

Emerson brought scientific heft to the proceedings, stating in his testimony that embryonic stem cell research represents a paradigm shift in medicine. Stem cells, he explained, are responsible for every aspect of human health and disease. They are, in effect, the Rosetta Stone of medicine. Deciphering their language could provide clues and cures to many diseases.
Studying embryonic stem cells is vital, said Emerson, because it is embryonic stem cells—and not adult stem cells—that have the ability to regenerate and create all kinds of tissues.

“There have been lots of papers on how adult stem cells help heart diseases and strokes,” he said, “but they don’t work very well. For a bone marrow cell to make a heart cell, there’s a one in a million chance.”

Emerson also talked about the importance of stem cell research in terms of the economic impact. “We can’t recruit the best scientists without it,” he said, noting that Pennsylvania trains 20 percent of the doctors in the U.S. “They won’t come here if we don’t do this… if you’re a medical student or a physician or a scientist and you have a choice between here and Palo Alto, it’s a hard sell.”

Embryonic stem cell research is “not just a slice of medicine,” concluded Emerson, but rather represents the future of “how we do care, diagnostics and prevention.”

Originally published on October 6, 2005