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Conference to Tackle Tough Ethical and
Political Issues Surrounding Stem Cell Research

By Ioana Patringenaru | May 5, 2006

Social Justice and Stem Cells:
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Center Hall at UCSD
For more information/registration:

When a judge ruled last month that a $3 billion initiative to fund stem cells research in California is constitutional, she answered the most pressing question about Prop. 71. But many more remain. How will the state spend these funds? Should the money go to diseases that are common in California? Should the state get discounts on any drugs discovered here? Who will lose out? And how else could the money be spent?

Experts and their audience will try to tackle these thorny questions during a conference Saturday at UCSD. The event, titled “Social Justice and Stem Cells Research,” will feature renowned scientists, including Larry Goldstein, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at UCSD.

The goal is to provide some basic information about the science behind stem cell research, as well as diverse points of view about the ethical, scientific and political questions it raises, organizers said.

“These are our bodies, these are our diseases, this is our money” said Mary Blair-Loy, a UCSD sociologist and one of the organizers. “We need to understand these issues so we can be involved.”

The goal also is to broaden the discussion beyond the debate surrounding embryonic stem cells, said Mike Kalichman, director of UCSD’s Research Ethics Program and another conference organizer.

When asked about social justice and stem cell research, Kalichman shot back with a long list of questions. What benefits can Californians expect in return for their $3 billion investment? A check in the mail? That’s not likely, he said. Rather, California could get discounts on products developed as a result of state-funded research, he added. Actually, scientists probably won’t benefit from the state’s $3 billion windfall right away, he cautioned. Last month’s verdict will almost certainly be appealed, Kalichman said.

Also, who would donate the eggs and the embryos for the research and what risks would they face, Kalichman asked. How will the state make sure that those who bear the burden of the research also reap benefits from it? Should researchers focus on diseases that afflict Californians, such as type 2 diabetes? Or should they target diseases that afflict Third World countries, such as malaria? Should they aim to cure lethal diseases such as melanoma? Or should they look for treatments for more common ailments, like heart disease? Should they focus on prevention, treatment or cure? The answers to these questions will be important in the future, Kalichman said, adding he hopes the conference will tackle some of them.

The event will be engaging, Blair-Loy promised.

“This is not the typical conference where people sit passively and listen to talking heads,” she said.

The audience will do its listening in the morning, hearing from four speakers. Then participants will break up into small groups and discuss different issues, Blair-Loy said. They will put together statements that will be used during a Q&A session at the end of the conference.

The event is the brainchild of the Episcopal Student Association at UCSD, to which Blair-Loy belongs and of The Center for Ethics in Science & Technology, which Kalichman co-founded.

The Episcopal group, which includes faculty, staff and students, had been studying stem cell research for a while. During that time, Blair-Loy said she learned quite a few things, including the tremendous variety of religious points of view about where life begins, even within one denomination. She also learned more about the promises of stem cell research. Meanwhile, the group decided it wanted to broaden the discussion to the UCSD and San Diego communities and teamed up with the Ethics Center.

“Our group really felt this is a pressing moral issue,” Blair-Loy said.

The Speakers:

•           Larry Goldstein, UCSD professor of cellular and molecular medicine, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a leader in advocating for the passage of Proposition 71 who has spoken across the country on stem cell issues.  His research focuses on basic cellular mechanisms in neurodegenerative diseases and nerve injury, including research on Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) where the next logical step is to begin working with human stem cells.
•           Wesley Smith, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute in Seattle and  an award-winning author, named by the National Journal as one of the nation's top experts in bioengineering, whose articles and columns have been published in major newspapers across the country.  He has appeared on national television programs including ABC Nightline, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, CNN Crossfire and CBS Evening News.
•           John Evans, UCSD associate professor of sociology and author of “Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate,” is following the stem-cell debate from the perspective of the sociology of bioethics and science, religion and politics. He also examines the polarization of public opinion on issues such as abortion and reproductive genetic technologies, including genetic engineering, cloning and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.
•           Alta Charo, Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin and currently visiting professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley.  Charo serves on the Scientific and Medical Accountability Standards Working Group of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.  She is a past member of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel and the presidential National Bioethics Advisory Commission.

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