While stem cell research is one of the hottest topics in current science news, it is also one of the least understood, Albert Kausch said Thursday afternoon during his presentation in the Hall of Graduate Studies.
The lecture, entitled “Stem Cells: The Science and the Controversy,” was attended by approximately 40 students and community members and was the first in a new seminar series sponsored by the Yale Biotechnology Student Interest Group. The series is focused on current scientific topics in the news and is geared towards non-scientists in the Yale and New Haven community.
In his presentation, Kausch, a molecular biologist, described the biological basics of stem cell research, including types of stem cells, stem cell therapy and its applications, and recent progress made in the field.
“The main reason for stem cell therapy would be to treat degenerative diseases and disorders,” he said. “Stem cell therapy is the replenishment of cells or organs — with new cells derived from stem cells. Bone marrow transplants are, in fact, a practical application of stem cell therapy.”
Kausch said the “hit-list” for early stem cell research includes diseases and injuries characterized by organ failure or cell loss, such as diabetes, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and cardiovascular disease. These diseases currently affect hundreds of thousands of people around the world, he said.
Kausch described the controversy surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells versus adult stem cells and the relationship between personalized stem cell therapy, or therapeutic cloning, and reproductive cloning.
According to an article published by researchers Bert Vogelstein, Bruce Alberts and Kenneth Shine in the Feb. 2002 edition of Science, “much confusion has arisen in the public, in that cloning seems to have become almost synonymous with somatic cell nuclear transfer, a procedure that can be used for many different purposes. Only one of these purposes involves an intention to create a clone of the organism.”
A legitimate case can be made for either side of the stem cell debate, Kausch said, but too many individuals base their opinions on emotion and the media instead of the science behind the issue. He said the controversy surrounding the issue is fueled by misinformation and fear.
“Any way you analyze the ethical issue of stem cells, you will end up with two valid arguments,” he said.
Kausch, the founder and president of Lifeedu, a nonprofit group that promotes biotechnology education to the general public, said he believes the public is generally uninformed because the issues are only discussed in the media and are not addressed in the classroom. Improved education is crucial for people to make more informed decisions concerning biotechnology, he said.
George Le ’08 said he enjoyed the lecture partly because the information he received in high school about stem cells was incomplete and outdated.
“Obviously the news does not report science correctly,” Le said. “I definitely learned something even though I have a [science] background.”
Jennifer Round GRD ’08, a graduate student in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and member of YBSIG, said she invited Kausch to speak because he shares the organization’s interest in science education. She said since topics like stem cell research are primarily addressed by members of the scientific community, accurate information that is easily understood by the general public is not always readily available.
“It is difficult for a lay person to learn more about it,” Round said. “Albert’s lecture was digestible by a non-science audience.”