Stem cells discussed at forum

The USF Bioethics Forum held its first meeting Thursday, presenting a discussion entitled “The Ethics of Stem Cell Research.”

Speaking on the subject was Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a USF research neurologist who works with stem cell technology. He said throughout history, there have been discussions as to the morality of medical advances.

“We’re at the beginning of a new era, the cell therapy era,” Sanchez-Ramos said. “Knowledge evolves faster than notions of right and wrong.”

Sanchez-Ramos said he believes a scholar’s personal background influences research. He said, for example, that he was raised in a strict Catholic environment.

“I cannot let those perspectives influence what I do in research,” he said.

Sanchez-Ramos explained to the audience the research behind the debate and why questions of morality have come from it. He said the study of how cells die has continued for decades, and that from such research the idea that cells may be replaced has arisen. In Sweden, he said, the use of fetal cells from therapeutic abortions in the technology has been pioneered. It is the use of fetal cells that has sparked debate over morality of such research.

Sanchez-Ramos said the ethical questions might be alleviated if the technology proves to be effective, likening it to the advent of penicillin.

“(It would be accepted) when stem cell research would have a shocking impact on the health (of people), like penicillin,” he said.

“Penicillin was so effective, it saved so many lives, it just took off.”

Sanchez-Ramos said if the quality of life of a large group of people improved, then the thinking on the morality of the subject would have to change.

“If it proves to be truly effective in large numbers of people, then I think people would have to rethink the ethics of it,” he said. “(People) may change their perspective on it.”

Sanchez-Ramos said within the debate is the idea of losing a few for the benefit of the whole. He said many people in such a debate do not want to sacrifice any lives, no matter the benefit.

“Those are issues that people get tortured about,” he said.Sanchez-Ramos said much of his research involves another type of stem cell technology that employs blood from the umbilical cord. In this method, the blood is harvested without the destruction of the fetus. Thus, he said, his methods are not as debated as others.

“At least with the umbilical cord blood (research) I have nobody threatening to blow up my lab,” he said.

The debate over stem cells has reached a national level in previous months. Supporters of the technology believe there is the potential for breakthroughs in curing heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer and other related diseases. Anti-abortion groups and other detractors argue that harvesting fetal cells is a form of murder.

Recently, President George W. Bush was forced to decide on the issue, allowing federal funding for the research provided researchers use presently existing cell lines.

Bioethicist David Schenck, who also spoke at the meeting, said afterward, the debate about stem cells has been important in recent months.

“I think it’s important because everybody is talking about it, so I think we have to address it,” he said. “I don’t think skin cell research in and of itself is as important to the total human condition as some other issues.”

Some of these other issues, Schenck said, are end-of-life issues and helping people deal with disease. Schenck said on the issue of the ethics of skin cell research and the president’s reaction, he felt Bush acted responsibly.

“I think the president made the only decision he probably could have,” he said. “He sat down with some very respected ethicists in Washington. The president really did his homework.”

Yurit Diaz, a junior majoring in medical technology, said she enjoyed the lecture and thought Sanchez-Ramos had a lot of knowledge on the subject.

“I thought it was very informative,” she said. “He was very open.”

Diaz said she thought Sanchez-Ramos did not at first talk freely about the ethics behind the debate.

“In the beginning I thought he was a little set back,” she said. “The time went on and he warmed up a little bit to the audience. I think he opened up a lot more.”

Diaz said her opinion on stem cell research is that it’s a technology that should be explored further.

“I think it’s great,” she said. “I think it should be done. I think there should be more research. I think people need to lighten up about ethical (issues).”

The first meeting of the USF Bioethics Forum drew an audience of mostly students who asked Sanchez-Ramos a range of questions. Schenck said he was pleased with the turnout.

“This is our first attempt,” he said.

“I thought the crowd was very responsive.”

Schenck said he looks forward to the future of the Forum.

“I hope we’ll have regular, ideally monthly, sessions,” he said.

  • Contact Rob Brannonat