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Leading medical researchers from the Boston area assembled on campus this weekend to deliberate how scientists can deal with political opposition to expanding stem cell research and to outline possible directions of future work in the field.
Stem cell heavyweights like Douglas A. Melton, co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, headlined Saturday’s event, but the gathering attracted no more than a few dozen attendees during its six hours of presentations.
The first Harvard College Stem Cell Symposium, sponsored by the student-run Harvard College Stem Cell Society (HCSCS), examined the interaction between science and society, and panelists outlined current research efforts as well as the political debate surrounding stem cell research.
None of the presenters voiced opposition to expanding current research efforts.
“It was way more left wing than we expected,” said the student group’s secretary, Nicole Ali ’08.
In fact, HCSCS invited a range of advocates of restrictions on stem cell research, but all of them failed to respond, said Co-president Francis S. Kim ’07.
“Because we are a new organization that not many people know about, it was very difficult to get speakers from outside the area,” Kim said. “And as we know, Cambridge is overwhelmingly liberal.”
Melton, the symposium’s keynote speaker, laid out the scientific and social implications of stem cell research. He emphasized the adaptability of stem cells and their vast potential to cure chronic diseases.
Jerome Ritz, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, highlighted the need to integrate laboratory research and clinical practice.
“Sometimes, doctors become aware of interesting things in clinical studies that can then be taken back to the lab and further explored,” Ritz said. “By going back and forth between the lab and clinic, scientists can branch out their possibilities.”
Congressman Michael E. Capuano, D-Mass., reminded the audience that politicians are not scientists.
“If you talk to us in science gobble,” he said, “we will smile and nod and ignore you.”
Capuano expressed optimism about the political future of stem cell research, citing the “surprising willingness” of many conservative policymakers to modify their viewpoints on the issue.
“No politician,” he said, “wants to look at the mother of a child with cancer in the eye and tell her that ‘my personal God says that your child should die.’”
M. Christian Green, a visiting lecturer on ethics at Harvard Divinity School, urged scientists to remember that “faith, hope, and love are as important in science as they are in theology.”
Harvard University Attorney Diane E. Lopez addressed both the benefits and drawbacks of intellectual property protection in stem cell research. “There is nothing else in science as complicated, politically sensitive, and ethically challenging as stem cell research,” Lopez said. “On one hand, [intellectual property] protection makes research profitable, but on the other hand, it limits what individual scientists can do in the lab.”
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