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Conference talks stem cells

Lesley Stevenson | Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Notre Dame students and faculty traveled to Vatican City to participate in the Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference, a three-day event for a select group of medical experts, ethicists, students and financial analysts which ran from April 11-13.

The conference,  titled “Regenerative Medicine: A Fundamental Shift in Science and Culture,” was intended to promote awareness of adult stem cell research and its potential and implications for the future of medicine.

Juniors Rebecca Marton and Kristin Springer and senior Margaret Kennedy attended the event with professor of biological sciences David Hyde and program of liberal studies professor emeritus Phillip Sloan.

Marton and Springer, both biology majors, work with Hyde in the Center for Zebrafish Research, while Kennedy, a double major in philosophy and accounting, works Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture.

“The conference was not only scientific, but at least for one of the days it addressed the ethical issues of stem cell research,” Marton said.

Marton explained that one of the conference’s chief goals was to discuss and raise awareness of the distinction between embryonic and adult stem cell research. While embryonic stem cells are taken from human embryos, adult stem cells can be extracted from the very patients needing therapy, meaning the ethical issues regarding destruction of embryos are not a concern.

“I think it’s actually a problem today where people confuse the two,” Marton said. “They sort of set themselves against all stem cell research where really they probably don’t have anything against adult stem cell research and just don’t realize the difference.

Springer said the difference in the sources of the cells is critical since adult stem cell therapy utilizes a patient’s own cells.

“This gap between science and faith was totally bridged,” Springer said. “You’re not destroying life by any means, you’re using a more organic, natural way to heal a patient … and the Church supports it 100 percent.”

Springer said she wishes the general public could understand the widespread potential for adult stem cells in regenerative medicine.
“Regenerative medicine and adult stem cell therapies – they’re not only going to benefit those in the science field … but I think they’re going to benefit all of us,” Springer said.

Springer and Kennedy both referenced multiple sclerosis patient Roxane Beygi, who spoke at the conference about her diagnosis and treatment with adult stem cell therapy. Beygi was told “she had no chance of recovery,” according to Kennedy. “Basically, she went from completely debilitated – couldn’t walk, had a hard time feeding herself, clothing herself, couldn’t speak, and was really struggling – and then underwent stem cell therapy,” Springer said. “Apart from minor speech things, she was like you and me.”

Although adult stem cell research does not bear the same ethical concerns as embryonic stem cell research, Kennedy said certain medical and ethical issues still need to be considered.

“It has the potential to heal so many people, but at the same time, when is it too much?” Kennedy said. “At what point do we draw the line? If the average human lifespan keeps increasing, it can’t increase exponentially.”

Marton said the Notre Dame students were among 26 student ambassadors invited to attend the conference. Springer said most of the students attend other Catholic universities including Georgetown, Villanova and Loyola.

“I felt very prepared by my education here to understand the talks and the meaning of what was being presented,” Marton said.

Marton, Springer and Kennedy said learning about the potential benefits of adult stem cell research made them hope to continue researching novel therapies or, in Kennedy’s case, to remain familiar with the biotech industry.

“This is actually a reality today,” Kennedy said. “This isn’t some thing that’s conceived of in the future, it really is at the cusp of fundamentally changing medicine today.”

Contact Lesley Stevenson at lsteven1@nd.edu