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April 3, 2006

UCSC to host April 17 lecture, discussion on ethics of stem cell research

By Tim Stephens

The ethical issues involved in stem cell research will be addressed in a free public lecture and discussion on Monday, April 17.

Photo: Laurie Zoloth
Laurie Zoloth

Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical ethics and humanities and of religion at Northwestern University, will give a talk entitled "May We Make the World? Bioethics, Stem Cells, and the New Biology," followed by a question-and-answer period. The event will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Stevenson Event Center.

Zoloth directs the Center for Bioethics, Science, and Society at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. She is chair of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Bioethics Advisory Board, serves on the executive committee of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, and is a member of the NASA National Advisory Council, the nation's highest civilian advisory board for NASA. Her current projects include work on the emerging issues in medical and research genetics and on the ethical issues in stem cell research.

"She is a truly cross-disciplinary person, an expert in religious studies and medical ethics who also understands the culture of scientific research," said Manuel Ares, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology, who invited Zoloth to speak at UCSC.

Ares and Ellen Suckiel, professor of philosophy and provost of Stevenson College, will both give brief introductory remarks. The event is sponsored by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Stem Cell Training Program at UCSC; the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology; Stevenson College; the Department of Philosophy; the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering; and the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research.

The use of embryonic stem cells for research and, potentially, for medical therapies has been the subject of ongoing public debate. Many scientists believe that stem cell research has enormous potential to produce new therapies and cures for a wide range of diseases. The controversy centers on the use of donated human embryos as the source of embryonic stem cells. The embryos are disrupted in the process of taking stem cells from them, and this is unacceptable to those who consider a human embryo to have the same moral status as a person.

"These issues are among the deepest challenges we face today," Suckiel said. "We are called upon to arrive at social consensus regarding such big questions as the nature of what it is to be human, our obligations to others, the limits of human reproduction, and the value of scientific inquiry."

Progress in other areas of biotechnology and biological research raises similar ethical questions, she said. "Biotechnology will enable us to take progressively greater control over human nature itself--a project which calls not only for scientific brilliance but also for intense ethical sensitivity and reflection," Suckiel said.

Zoloth has explored many of these questions, including the ethical issues arising from the sequencing of the human genome. In addition to her public talk at UCSC, Zoloth will give a seminar in the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology and will meet with faculty and students.

"As we develop new technologies in the biological sciences, we continually run into new questions about whether it's 'okay' to do certain things," Ares said. "The people who are creating these technologies don't think very often about how the public perceives what they do, so getting this other perspective about biologically transforming technologies is really valuable."

UCSC was awarded a $1.2 million training grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) for an interdisciplinary group of faculty to establish a training program in stem cell research (see earlier story). CIRM was established in 2004 with the passage of Proposition 71, a ballot measure crafted in response to the restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on federal funding for stem cell research. Dispersal of funds from CIRM has been delayed by lawsuits.

For additional information about the public lecture and discussion, contact Branwyn Wagman at (831) 459-3077.

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