Science, media and ethics contend

While the nation’s political leaders legislate and debate the future of stem cell research, Penn’s School of Medicine held its own heated inquiry on the topic titled, “What Price Cure? The Controversy Over Stem Cell Research.”

Moderated by Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics, the Dec. 12 event featured a diverse panel, with voices ranging from the scientific to the journalistic and the legal.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can be turned into specialized cells such as heart, skin, muscle and brain cells. Scientists believe stem cells can one day be used to create treatments for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and other disorders.

Embryonic stem cell research raises hairs, because the cells are created from embryos, which are destroyed in the process. But, as symposium panelist and Associate Director for Education at the Center of Bioethics Glen McGee argued, even that point is debatable. McGee questioned what processes really qualified as destruction. For example, he asked, is freezing an embryo the same as destruction?

John Gearhart, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, worried that this sort of verbal gymnastics was unproductive. He said attempts to rename scientific processes convolutes the issues: “This is wrong. We have terms. It will lead to confusion.”

Panelist Antonio Regalado, a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said the war of words has made him careful about the terms he uses. He also expressed concerns over making information available to the public. He said that when scientists are reluctant to talk about their research, they withhold information that rightly belongs in the public domain.

Gearhart had a different take on the issue. “We are so under the magnifying glass that we have to be damn sure [when we go public]. Once we go releasing information then we put ourselves at risk,” he said. Gearhart said that the public’s demand has placed scientists on unfamiliar footing, forcing those who are used to working in the laboratory to become media savvy.

He also added that the pressures from patients have become an enormous burden on the scientific community. “They are well aware that the research isn’t there, but they are desperate and they bring that desperation to you. The pressure is there on the patient’s side to get it out there.”

But Arti K. Rai, assistant professor in the Law School, wondered if such pressures could really speed up the research. She pointed out that the Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund owns the U.S. patent on the method used to isolate embryonic stem cells and that this monopoly could hamper the development of cures. The expensive legal proceedings needed to resolve this crisis in intellectual property rights will result in higher treatment costs to consumers, she said.

Despite the complexity surrounding the issue, Harlan F. Weisman, executive vice president of research and development at Johnson & Johnson, said his company will continue to engage in stem cell research. “We are not avoiding the issue of embryonic research,” he said. “We owe it to the global community to participate.” To deal with the ethical issues, Weisman said Johnson & Johnson engages in “everyday bioethics,” having frequent discussions, both formal and informal, on the topic.

Weisman also said that he believed that the public is handling the issue competently. “I think we are muddling our way through the debate as it is happening. [But] we are having an appropriate amount of discussion.”

Originally published on January 24, 2002