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Clear Science, Uncertain Future?

by Matthew William Lensch

E.O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard entomologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, noted the following in his book Consilience: "For a relatively brief interval ... researchers are intoxicated with a mix of the newly discovered and the imaginable unknown. For the first time, the really important questions are asked in a form that can be answered ..." Wilson was, in general, describing a period of scientific renaissance. There have been many scattered throughout human history, often catalyzed by a mere handful of amazing, sometimes obscure, observations. The description of general relativity (see link #1) and the demonstration of DNA as the genetic material (see link #2) are but two examples of single research publications, focal points of science, that opened the door for a deluge of subsequent inquiry.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}The history of mammalian developmental biology is likewise paved with seminal findings that have defined the path currently traveled by those of us in the field. Key among these were the descriptions of systems in which development can be studied at its earliest stages, in the embryo, and in the laboratory dish. Stevens and Little's systematic observations of rare testicular tumors in laboratory mice, Evans and Kaufman's and Martin's concurrent reports that pluripotent cells (i.e. able to form all tissues in the adult animal) could be isolated from the mouse embryo, and then Thomson and colleagues' 1998 report of pluripotent (embryonic) stem cells isolated from the normal human embryo have brought the field of developmental biology to exactly the point Wilson describes above. It is an incredibly exciting time to be a biologist probing the depths of human development and disease processes.

This excitement has at its foundation, the availability of human embryonic stem cells as they uniquely enable us to ask detailed questions about human-specific development that were previously inconceivable. However, the enthusiasm that buoys us up is mixed with conflict over what should be done with this newly found scientific power. The ethical dilemmas presented by the field of human embryonic stem cell research are many. They cover a broad spectrum of issues ranging from our basic regard for human existence to the allocation of health-care resources with a myriad of other points for possible reflection between and beyond. There is no consensus on what it means to be a human being, especially at what point in development the status of "being" is attained. Despite this, individual nations will move forward, either to support or prohibit aspects of this new field. To be an investigator in such a contentious field of research presents some rather heavy challenges.

I earned my Ph.D. in molecular and medical genetics less than four years ago for research into how genetic damage and environmental stresses collaborate in leukemia of children and adults. At present, I am a young scientist, a post-doctoral fellow, working in the laboratory of George Q. Daley at Children's Hospital Boston and the Harvard Medical School. This is the time in a career when a scientist is meant to focus solely on research, a period wherein many see their most productive years at the laboratory bench. Hopefully, such productivity will prepare a young investigator for a position on the faculty of a university or as a company staff scientist. I decided at some point in the not so distant past, that the most promising way to reach such a lofty goal would be to conduct research in an area that was personally fascinating and also poised to have a huge impact on science and medicine. The latter is of particular importance to me, and I have been engaged in various aspects of biomedical research for the past 15 years. I look forward to such studies throughout the remainder of my career for it is a life that I love. In consideration of these points, when I finished graduate school I wanted to continue research in a field that combined my scientific interests with my personal desire to contribute to the improvement of medical practice. For me, human embryonic stem cell research was that field.

While we have already begun to see the scientific payoffs in embryonic stem cell research, we have also gotten much more than we anticipated in areas beyond the scientific. It is perhaps impossible to work in this field without becoming involved in the political and ethical debate. In the beginning of my post-doctoral work, I rather naively thought that, because I was only interested in using embryonic stem cells to understand development and disease and was not engaged in human reproductive cloning, my work would not be a target of the central debate. As an aside, every scientist I have personally met uniformly rejects human reproductive cloning. Though I remain firmly committed to the position that any attempt at reproductive cloning would be medically and ethically irresponsible, I have found that holding such convictions has not spared me from the conflict. This is in part because I recognize the profound value of nuclear transfer or "therapeutic cloning" for research into specific human diseases or for creating genetically matched cells for transplantation - if we are able to work out the details of how to do it. Of course, whether nuclear transfer should be allowed for any purpose is a hotly contested international topic.

There is no uniformity between governments regarding what aspects of embryonic stem cell work are fundable, not to mention legal. Legislation is pending around the world that could drastically impact the career plans of investigators in this field. Even within a single country like the United States, a lack of consensus at the national level has led to individual states moving in different directions as far as stem cell research is concerned. Some states do not much welcome the type of work we do, while others are poised to lure investigators within their borders by offering generous research funding and laboratory space.

Furthermore, every friend and family member has an opinion on human embryonic stem cells, sometimes refreshingly in support, other times surprisingly against. It places me in unfamiliar territory within my community and in some difficult-to-imagine venues for a scientist at my level of training. I have become engaged in discussions ranging from heated one-on-one debates with friends and family, to providing testimony to state and federal government bodies, and recently participated in an international conference on moral philosophy and stem cell research. I have heard researchers like me (specifically me at times) praised for having the courage to push ahead towards new and improved disease therapies, and condemned as murderers, despots, and immoral "mad scientists." Some of these sentiments bolster one's belief in the work. Other comments can force a person down under their weight. At times, it can be very challenging to remain undiscouraged. After all, science itself is incredibly complex, without being embroiled in such a difficult, though important, controversy.

Despite these challenges, at least two things have remained clear to me throughout this experience. First, I am resolute in my commitment to human embryonic stem cell research, including nuclear transfer. These incredible cells will lead us to a greater understanding of human development and disease as long as we keep asking the right questions. Secondly, it is important, as a scientist, to discuss my studies with the public. I believe that science is conducted for the greater public good, whether the payoff is in improved health care or simply in obtaining greater knowledge about the world in which we live. As a scientist, it is my job not only to carry out research but also to tell my community what I have learned and why I wanted to know it.

We that work in this field desire nothing so much as to understand how cells decide what to be. How do they choose between becoming a blood cell versus a neuron? How are adult stem cells made in nature? Can we engineer that process using embryonic stem cells in a way that leads to regenerative cellular therapies? Speaking of therapeutics, one argument made against the field is that it may give patients and their families "false hope" for improved therapies. Hope is a truly powerful thing. While biomedical researchers should never promise what is not within our grasp, we should always remain hopeful. The hope I keep in mind is my own - simply to leave the world a better place than when I entered it. I am neither an artist nor a diplomat, simply a laboratory scientist. But by conducting research, I hope to ease human suffering, and so I will continue to ask challenging questions.

Asking questions has taken me from the medical clinic, to the operating theater, and sometimes to the morgue. What has always driven me forward is an insatiable curiosity to understand the "Hows" of life. "How does this happen? How can I prove it? How can I fix it?" I have continually brought these experiences back to the laboratory where I have every intention of remaining despite what may be an unclear future as individual nations (my own included) define appropriate avenues of study. For those of us in this field, it is clear that this work can accomplish enormous things if properly done. The big question is, "Who will decide what is proper?" It is vital to ask, and stimulates debate the world over.

It is my desire that scientists continue to rise to the challenge of becoming involved in these discussions. They should become involved despite the gravity of the sentiments expressed and despite their feelings of being unprepared to debate aspects of philosophy and policy. Researchers are invaluable in this discussion because research insights are key and can only come from scientists. Finally, I might add that scientists should become involved in this manner despite being young, idealistic, and uncertain of what their individual futures might hold. After all, this may be the only chance they ever have.

Links to go with the article:

1) An interesting online article about Einstein and general relativity: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/einstein/relativity/index.html

2) A page at the Rockefeller University dedicated to the trio that defined DNA as the genetic material: http://www.rockefeller.edu/discovery/dna/index.php

3) A fine article from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research on stem cells that includes some comments about Stevens and Little's work in teratomas: http://www.wi.mit.edu/news/archives/2004/cpa_1110.html

4) The PubMed reference for Evans and Kaufman's work establishing mouse ES cells: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

5) The research article from Martin's lab also reporting mouse ES cell establishment: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=6950406

6) The homepage for the WiCell Research Institute: http://www.wicell.org/

7) The homepage for research at Children's Hospital Boston: http://www.childrenshospital.org/research/

8) The homepage for the Harvard Medical School: http://hms.harvard.edu/hms/home.asp

9) For additional information about stem cells, please see the website for the International Society for Stem Cell Research: http://www.isscr.org {/access}

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