Anytime you get two Nobel Prize winners and several world-class experts on stem cell research on the same panel, particularly when the topic of conversation is “Stem Cells and our Society”, you know you are going to hear some interesting thoughts and observations.
That was certainly the case at the World Alliance Forum conference in San Francisco where Nobel Laureates Shinya Yamanaka and Paul Berg were joined by Hiro Nakauchi (who has just joined Stanford – you can read about that in our news release and blog), Hideyuki Okano from Keio University in Japan, Deepak Srivastava of the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, and Irv Weissman from Stanford.
Asked whether they thought we were asking too much of a still quite young science to say that that stem cells will be able to cure currently intractable diseases, Paul Berg said “It’s a mistake to ask if we are asking too much; it’s the nature of science to ask for the moon and then figure out how to get there.”
Berg was full of praise for Proposition 71, the voter initiative that created the stem cell agency, calling it an ‘extraordinary development.” He said that helped drive the research and marveled that:
“It’s only about 8 years into its existence and to imagine we would be hearing about fixing organs and fixing hearts in the body, those are remarkable achievements. I think CIRM has been one of the most extraordinary social developments, comparable to the Manhattan project.”
But the praise was also tempered with a strong dose or realism. Onaka, Weissman and Srivastava said there is still so much we don’t understand about stem cells and how they work in the body, and we will need to figure this out if we are to be able to turn this potential into actual therapies and deliver them to the public. They said we will also have to expect to overcome some ethical questions, such as is it right to breed animals that have human organs for use in transplantation.
The scientists say we have to be open and honest with the public about the work we do and the reasons why we do it. Only by being fully transparent about the science can we expect the public to support it.
Srivastava said new approaches, new knowledge and new technologies are helping push the field of stem cell research along at a rapid pace:
“We now know a lot more about the gene networks that control cell fate in our body, and I’m confident this is going to move along, and we need to push it hard to get where we need to be.”
He said all new avenues of research face problems and obstacles but it is the nature of science to push past those in search of truth, and in search of hope. He said his commitment springs from being a pediatrician who has to talk to parents, often under very difficult circumstances:
“When your child is faced with death, it’s not an abstract policy discussion, it’s a life and death discussion, and that changes everything. People want life and will act accordingly.”
Yamanaka said that when we talk about “society” we cannot limit ourselves to thinking just about the community or country we live in, we have to think about the global society. He said we need to keep in mind that the diseases we are attempting to treat are global in nature and so the therapies we devise have to be able to be delivered on a global scale. To do anything less would be to create two worlds, a healthy developed world and a sick developing one, and that, ultimately, would not be good for any of us.