Along with Condoleezza Rice and Harry Potter, Dr. James Thomson was selected as one of People Magazine’s most intriguing people of 2001, and last night UCSB welcomed him to lecture on stem cell research.
“Four hundred thousand frozen embryos are stored in the U.S. alone,” Thomson said during his lecture last night titled “Human Embryonic Stem Cells: Implications for Basic Cancer Research,” held in the new Theater and Dance building. Thomson’s lecture was the sixth installment in the Frontiers of Cancer Research series, which invites leading scientists to discuss their findings and hopeful advances in the search for a cure for cancer.
During the lecture, Thomson discussed the connection between cancer treatment and stem cell research. He said stem cells continuously divide like cancer cells and have the potential to become any cell in the body, such as heart tissue and bone marrow, when they are placed into cultures.
“There’s a profound parallel between recombinant DNA and stem cells,” Thomson said. “The potential there is enormous.”
For example, Thomson said bone marrow transplants offer a cure for patients with leukemia, but only about one-third of patients currently receive treatment.
Thomson said the stem cells he and his team use for research are derived purely from embryos developed through in-vitro fertilization. He said couples that attempt conception and choose in-vitro fertilization methods are given the option to store the fertilized embryo for three years. If the couple can conceive naturally within that time frame, they may choose to donate the embryo for scientific research.
“Embryonic stem cell lines essentially make everything in the whole body,” Thomson said.
While Thomson said stem cells could ultimately cure several diseases, he recognized that retrieving stem cells for research and treatment involves complicated and intricate procedures.
Thomson said researchers have not yet found a way to expand stem cells that produce blood in clinically useful amounts and that there are also safety concerns involved, such as the immune system rejecting the treatment. In addition, Thomson expressed concern for testing treatments on animals like marmoset monkeys.
Thomson, who is popularly known as the father of stem cell research, is a developmental biologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health as well as a visiting professor at UCSB. In 1998, Thomson and his colleagues became the first research team to successfully isolate human embryonic stem cells.
Thomson said he would have a satellite laboratory at the California NanoSystems Institute on campus to collaborate with other researchers at UCSB on future stem cell research.
Despite the leaps in stem cell research advancements, audience member David Tseng, a first-year business economics major, said scientists specializing in the field must still overcome adversaries who bring ethical objections to the table, questioning the moral right to use human embryos as research projects.
“Stem cell research has a lot of potential,” Tseng said. “However, researchers will first need to get the okay to go from religionists who believe the entire process is playing God.”
P.J. Sweigart, a first-year biology major, said Thomson showed the capacity of stem cell research in a realistic way.
“He made the future of embryonic stem cell research sound very promising while noting the obstacles involved with using stem cells for medical treatment,” Sweigart said.
The event was co-sponsored by the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara and the Doreen J. Putrah Cancer Research Foundation.