Renowned Expert in Stem Cell Research Speaks On History and Methods of Obtaining Stem Cells

Dr. Ann Kiessling, Harvard Medical School associate stem cell researcher, came to Phillips Academy last Wednesday to help articulate the debate to a student audience. She spoke about the history of stem cell research, its current standing in the government, ethics and many of the problems and successes that it has endured. Dr. Kiessling is the founder of Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation and published author of over 100 scientific papers. She has also given over 60 lectures across the nation and been quoted in The Boston Globe, Newsweek and Nature magazine, among others. Andover Ethics Society hosted the event. It is an incipient club that provides an atmosphere conducive to open discussion on sensitive current issues such as affirmative action, cloning and illegal immigration. Aaron Sage ’09, founder of the Andover Ethics Society, said, “We’re really excited about the speakers and we hope to reach a wide audience with the variety of our topics.” Sage was inspired to create the club when he read an article last spring about Scooter Libby. “All the spying and cheating going on made me think about making this club so we can discuss issues like this.” In her lecture, Kiessling explained the theory behind stem cell manipulation and progressed to speak about the history and current issues plaguing the field. “I found the talk to be quite stimulating and informative about the current status of stem cell research in the world today. I had no idea that this field was so full of possibilities and controversies,” said Kyle Ofori ’09. “I hope to keep up with information about stem cell research in the future,” he added. Stems cells are only found in select tissues in the body such as skin cells and have a reservoir of immature cells that can replace old or dying cells. Other tissues such as the spinal cord, heart and eye do not have stem cells. The goal of stem cell research revolves around producing stem cells for these vital, yet irreplaceable organs. Kiessling then presented three methods of obtaining stem cells from sources such as adult tissues and fetal tissues. Early embryos, eggs fertilized by sperm, are made up entirely of stem cells and are one source of these vital cells. Parthenotes, stem cells from eggs activated without sperm, are useful in stem cell work on females because an unfertilized oocyte, or egg, can be taken from an individual’s uterus and will not be rejected when the operation occurs. Stem cells from nuclear transplantation, known as ovasomes, are harvested by transferring the genes from a patient into an empty egg, also known as the vector. This type of technology led to the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997. Human cloning was another issue that came up during Kiessling’s lecture, but it was fleetingly addressed as a nonissue. The Harvard researcher said that even if humans could be cloned, they would only be infants and their organs would not be able to transition into a full grown adult. She also gave further proof of the irrationality behind these fears because scientists are generally not interested in cloning humans, as they would serve no purpose. In England, the government has held public forums and debates on stem cell research and it is now ruled acceptable and legal to perform research in that field. However, in America, Kiessling noted that the government has yet to hold such public events because it is believed that the general American public is not knowledgeable enough to make such a significant decision. When asked about the status of stem cell research abroad, Kiessling said, “There’s a big project in China but it’s not clear how accurate that data is.” In March 2006, a group of researchers from various institutions in New England tried to raise funds to perform research on the topic and further the legality of stem cell research, but so far they have been unsuccessful in their venture. Kiessling spoke about the conflicting opinions on when exactly life begins. One faction, she noted, believes that human life begins at the moment when the egg is fertilized. Therefore, these people do not condone the use of embryos in stem cell research. Others set the mark at the point when the baby can be felt kicking in the mother’s uterus. In conclusion, Dr. Kiessling said, “In eight years, we’ve actually gotten very little done and lots of frustration. It’s up to your generation to do something about that.”