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Bridges to the Future: Debating the value of embryos

By Annalise Kinkel

January 30, 2006

Jane Maienschein opened with a number of attention-getting claims about stem cell research when she kicked off the winter quarter's first Bridges to the Future event on Jan. 25 at the University of Denver. Among them: the debate over stem cells is neither new, nor an issue of morality versus science.

Maienshein, director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University, delivered "Whose View of Life: Values, Embryos and Society," to an audience of about 500 people in Gates Concert Hall. Maienschein specializes in the history and philosophy of biology and the ways that biology, bioethics and biopolicy play out in society.

"This debate," she said, "dates back to Aristotle in the fourth century B.C." She explained that through most of the 17th century, people believed that life formed gradually, or epigenetically, rather than being preformed and beginning at the moment of conception. From there, Maienschein traced the history of research on embryo development.

She explained that early-18th century scientists examined animals, particularly frogs, to discover the physical development in fetuses. By the late-19th century, she continued, physicians were collecting deceased human embryos and fetuses for research. Contrary to popular belief, she said stem cells were not first named in 1997 with the birth of the first cloned sheep Dolly, but rather in 1895.

Maienschein's talk covered early-20th century research on cloning and the isolation of DNA in the 1950s. She wrapped up with a discussion of current stem cell research and its challenges.

"What we want to do is tame stem cells," she said. "We want to tell them to become what we want?to become a heart muscle cell, and to have them remain as a heart muscle cell." She explained that contemporary research on mice stem cells has taken a stem cell and created what appears to be the desired differentiated cell. But once implanted, she said, the cell does not always remain in its desired state.

The evening concluded with a question and answer session, where international studies Assoc. Prof. Frank Laird served as moderator. Maienschein responded to questions on government funding and explained her recommendation for U.S. policy.

"Policy should allow public funded research up to the 14 days of embryonic development and leave research in the public domain," Maienschein said. She explained that after 14 days the stem cells begin to differentiate and reach the blastocyst stage.

Bridges to the Future lectures are designed to stimulate community dialogue on issues of importance, The 2005-06 Bridges to the Future theme is "Science, Technology and Values," and this quarter's sub-theme is life sciences issues.

The next Bridges event, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21, in the Newman Center, will be a panel discussion titled "Ethical Dilemmas and End of Life Decisions: Extending Life, Accepting Death." Panelists include Dr. Jean Kutner, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center; Richard Lamm, former Colorado Governor and co-director of the DU Institute for Public Policy Studies; Julie Nice, professor of law at DU's Sturm College of Law; and Rabbi David Teutsch, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

All Bridges events are free and open to the public. For more about Bridges programming visit www.du.edu/bridges.