Hadassah, CRC discussion focuses on stem cell research

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

If you are going to decide about something, you should start with the facts.

That was the approach of an educational panel discussion on the facts about stem cell research at Central Reform Congregation, which offered an in-depth look at the topic last Sunday during “Stem Cell Research: Updates on Legislation, Science Research.”

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With the tagline “Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About,” the stem cell educational event was sponsored by St. Louis Chapter Hadassah, along with CRC and the Churches of the Holy Ground Collaborative.

The event featured five speakers on various aspects of the issue of stem cell research, ranging from ethics, science and politics.

While the topic remains controversial here, it is not considered controversial in Israel. The Hadassah Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center in Jerusalem is a leader in the field, Rabbi Susan Talve told the audience that packed the CRC temple.

St. Louis Chapter Hadassah, which supports the work of the medical facility, noted that the research is about saving lives, and it is not a partisan issue. Politicians from both major parties support the research.

The event’s keynote discussion was given by Dr. Steven L. Teitelbaum, the Wilma and Roswell Messing Professor of Pathology at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Teitelbaum spoke about the fundamental science of stem cell research, which he said some opponents have mischaracterized, and he spoke of some of the recent research and potentials for cures.

Other speakers included Rabbi Susan Talve, of CRC, and Pastor Rev. James T. Morris, of Lane Tabernacle CME Church, who are part of an interfaith collaborative effort on the topic. Donn Rubin, Chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, spoke on legislative issues and political challenges.

Senator Claire McCaskill, who has been working on legislation on stem cell research, was scheduled to speak but was unable to make it to the event, as she was attending the birth of her first grandchild. Senator Russ Carnahan spoke in her place.

Rabbi Susan Talve said that the event aimed not to persuade anyone to a particular view but to make sure accurate information was on the table for the discussion. Her talk, and that of Rev. Morris, offered a perspective on the ethical issues, including the great promise of treatment and even cures for diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Steven Teitelbaum titled his discussion “The Promise of Stem Cell Research.” “I have been a physician research a longtime and have seen wonderful things where once there was little we could do,” said Teitelbaum. “Nothing has the promise of Stem cell research. So what is all the debate about?”

He noted that the debate was not about science. “It really is an ethical debate but in order to make an ethical decision, you need to have the facts to make the decision, not misinformation,” he said.

His talk aimed to clear up some of that “misinformation.” “A stem cell is something that can renew itself and give rise to other cells,” he said. “To understand the debate, you have to understand the difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells.”

Teitelbaum described adult stem cells as “unipotent “, cells that can give rise to other cells like themselves, with heart stem cells giving rise to heart cells. Embryonic stem cells, however, are “pluripotent, ” which means they can give rise to any kind of cell in the body. He noted that adult stem cells are “multipotent ” and can give rise to several kinds of cells, but none are pluripotent like embryonic stem cells.

“We need research on both kinds,” he noted.

He also pointed out that human embryonic stem cells are derived from a ball of cells called a blastocyst, which forms a few days after fertilization and before an embryo would implant in the uterine wall. Excess blastocysts created by in vitro fertilization are donated by couples for use in research. Otherwise, they usually either remain frozen forever or are discarded as medical waste. Human embryonic stem cells, or hESCS, are derived from these blastocysts and transferred to a petri dish with a growth medium, where the cells renew themselves indefinitely while remaining genetically normal and retaining the potential to become any kind of cell, Teitelbaum noted.

Teitelbaum told the audience that the greatest potential for such cells is in being able to understand the genetics behind diseases. Another kind of stem cell research, Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, or SCNT, holds the greatest promise for cures.

“SCNT does not involve sperm, it uses a donated egg. The nucleus is removed and DNA from a skin cell is used instead – a somatic cell,” he said. “All somatic cells have the same DNA but what makes cells different is which genes are switched on or off.”

Teitelbaum said that misinformation about this procedure and about blastocysts had lead to confusion. He noted that reproductive cloning using an embryo created by SCNT is prohibited by law. He also noted that opponents would often try to tie stem cells to the abortion issue, although the cells come from fertility treatments and donated by couples. He noted that discarded fetal tissue is not the source for stem cells, and in fact, such cells are adult stem cells.

The doctor also commented on criticism that stem cell research had not yet produced cures. “It takes fifteen years to bring a new drug to market,” noting that hESCs were isolated just ten years ago. He also pointed out that the purpose of scientific research is to make new discoveries. “There are no guarantees until you do the research but if you never try, you never get there,” he said.

In her talk, Rabbi Susan Talve spoke of the promise of the research and the need to oppose those who would restrict knowledge. Rev. Morris spoke passionately about learning about the promise of stem cell research, and of a deathbed promise to a man suffering from Sickle Cell.

Senator Carnahan spoke on the legislative progress on the issue.

“Just to be clear, there is nothing on the ballot this fall about stem cells,” said Donn Rubin of Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. However, he noted that activist opposed to stem cell research have already announced they will try again in 2010. He spoke about some efforts by opponents to link the topic to the abortion issue, while they are quite different.

“Missourians overwhelmingly support stem cell research,” he told the crowd. “It is often portrayed as a battle of religion on one side and science on the other but it is just not true. Many religions support stem cell research,” Rubin said.

After the event, sponsor St. Louis Chapter Hadassah offered a hand-out on stem cell research and recent advances in the field.

More information on the topic is available at the Web site http:// www.hadassah.org.il/english.