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  Reported by
  John Easton, AM'77
  Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
  Richard Mertens
  Sharla Stewart
  Mary Ruth Yoe

  Photography by
  Dan Dry


  > > The End of Consulting?
  > >
Records of a Revolution
  > >
Campus of the Big Ideas
  > >
You Go Girl!


Chicago: Campus of the Big Ideas
The launch of The Chicago Initiative-the University's five-year, $2 billion fund-raising effort-was marked by an April 12 event that focused on Chicago's intellectual initiatives.

Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?


The quick response to this session's query-at least judging from the panelists' takes on the topic-is, how can we know until we're allowed to try?

Not that a snappy rejoinder resolves it. Indeed the discussion raised as many questions as it answered. Stem-cell research, noted Lainie Ross, associate professor in pediatrics and the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, is still "at the real embryonic stage-pun intended."

IMAGE:  A discussion of stem-cell research raised "Why not?" questions.
A discussion of stem-cell research raised "Why not?" questions.

For the nonscientists in the audience, she reviewed the basic science involved in "harvesting" stem cells, which can generate and renew tissue and are present in every organ, including those in the adult body. "The source matters," said Ross. Embryonic stem cells can be procured from the inner cell mass of a "blastocyst," an early-stage embryo, or from an aborted fetus. Stem cells can also be obtained from the placenta, and adult stem cells can be procured from many tissues in the human adult patient. The more mature the organism from which the stem cells are derived, the less malleable they are and the more likely to induce an immune response if placed in another person's body. Nevertheless, adult stem cells are much more "plastic"-and hold more promise-than scientists once thought, but they're neither as ubiquitous nor as "pluripotent" as embryonic stem cells, which can grow into any kind of cell.

For those who find it morally repugnant to start a human life only to end it at blastocyst stage for research, the controversy is a cut-and-dried issue: federal funding for research with embryos should be banned. The National Academy of Science disagrees, supporting embryonic stem-cell research for therapeutic purposes. Leaving his scientist-colleagues to argue for therapeutic cloning, Robert Richards, PhD'78, professor in history, philosophy, psychology, and the College, instead questioned whether reproductive cloning is such a bad thing after all: "Physicians already intervene and thwart nature," parents already "design" their babies by choosing mates with good looks and smarts, and "repugnance," he said, is an unreliable moral guide. "It's doubtful reproductive cloning would be undertaken except for fertility reasons," and after much thought his view is, "Why not?"

Why not? was the question of the afternoon. As a silver-haired gentleman in the audience asked, "Why do legislators have to be involved in scientific research at all?" The answer is economics. Panel moderator Janet Davison Rowley, PhB'45, SB'46, MD'48, the Blum-Riese distinguished service professor in medicine, reminded attendees that no U.S. scientist can now get federal funding to learn how embryonic stem cells "do what they do." She warned of an impending "brain drain," as researchers leave the U.S. for countries more open to their work. And Ross noted the irony in scientists scurrying to private funding sources: "Doesn't it make more sense to keep controversial research in the public sphere, where you can maintain higher levels of oversight?"

One positive result of the controversy, noted Olufunmilayo Olopade, an associate professor in medicine who studies the genetics of cancer, is that researchers no longer assume they'll receive funding. "We have to be honest with Congress and educate the public. It's not enough to say we need this funding so we can cure every disease imaginable. We're a long way from that." Whether they'll be allowed to try is a question still to be answered.

1. In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

2. Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

3. Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?

4. Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

5. Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?

6. How will technology change the way we work and live?

7. Why do we dig up the past?

8. Art for art's sake?

9. In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

10. Can we protect civil liberties in wartime?


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  JUNE 2002

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  > > e-Bulletin: 06/14/02



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