Stem Cells in Medicine: Opportunities and Challenges


I recently attended a lecture on Stem Cells in Medicine: Opportunities and Challenges at the University of New South Wales. The main presenter was Professor Alan Trounson, President of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco, California, the state’s $3billion stem cell agency. Dr Bernadette Tobin,  Director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at St Vincent’s Hospital, also spoke about Ethics, and George Negus chaired the evening.

Trounson’s talk was very engaging even if the science did go over my head in a few places.  The advancements made in stem cell research are amazing and the potential range of therapies is huge.

Tobin’s talk on ethics was partly about ethics in general, and partly about a study of the wording used in the information provided to clinical trial patients for stem cell trials, as compared to the wording used in the information provided to patients in other types of clinical trials (e.g. cancer drug trials).  The referenced study found that wording used in the stem cell trials was found to be misleading and overly optimistic.

I mentioned that George Negus chaired the evening.  I have to say that he was completely out of his depth, both on the topic matter, and on technology and social media.  He didn’t seem to understand anything about Facebook or Twitter and even texting was a bit too advanced for him.  I hate to say it, but it’s possible that George is past his use-by date.  It’s also quite possible that he only read the briefing for the event in the taxi on the way to the event.

The question and answer session was very disappointing.  George, after saying that he wouldn’t monopolise it, did just that and took up at least 10 minutes with inane banter, often trying to create controversy where there was none.  I also have to say that Tobin went completely wishy-washy during this session and seemed to forget things we she had talked about in her lecture just 20 minutes earlier.

But the evening was well worth it, even for just the first two lecturers.  Briefly, the take-aways were:

  • Many normal cells can be reverted back to a stem-cell like state making the use of embryonic stem cells unnecessary for some therapies.
  • Embryonic stem cells are still the best or only option for some treatments.
  • Stem cell research is being targeted at many of the BIG problems; AIDS, Macular Degeneration, Diabetes etc.
  • The goal is to eventually have a process which doesn’t require extraction of cells at all, but rather an active treatment is injected into patient.
  • Commercialising the therapies will involve Venture Capitalists who will obviously want a return for the risk they are taking. This leads to the obvious and unanswered question about how widely these treatments will be available across the socio-economic spectrum.
  • No mention of when these therapies might complete clinical trials.  My gut feeling is in the 5 – 15 year time frame.

And, for me, there were two take-aways from the Ethics talk as well.

  • Just because an idea comes from a religious body doesn’t necessarily make the idea religious or wrong.
  • Broadly speaking, there are two types of opposing ethical frameworks.  The first states that Ethics should be based on the current “norms”. The second states that Ethics are timeless and irrespective of current “norms”.

This last point from the night is very deep and intense, and one that still echoes in my mind. The choice of which framework you choose has huge implications in many areas of life.  I think that like much of philosophy there isn’t a specific answer but a lot to be learned from thinking about and exploring the assumptions and connotations of both points of view.

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