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Scientists hear different sides of stem cell story

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Four times Hamilton Jordan has battled cancer. Each time he's diagnosed, he researches his disease and hopes for new treatments.

The scientists, politicians and lawyers gathered on the University of Georgia campus Monday believe some of those treatment answers lie in stem cell research.

"Life never meant so much to me over the last few years as the years when I'm fighting for it," Jordan said as the former White House chief of staff shared his cancer stories.

Stem cell research brings to mind images of lab coats and microscopes. But Monday's symposium brought to light the legal, political and personal issues facing stem cell research. Lawyer Sherry Knowles, U.S. Congressman Tom Price and Jordan came to discuss their respective points of view.

"These are three very important topics that will really determine how medicine will reach the public," said Steve Stice, a Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar and director of UGA's Regenerative Bioscience Center.

Every year, UGA holds a "Human Embryonic Stem Cell Toolbox" workshop, a five-day clinic sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Participants come from as far away as Japan.

The RBC then holds the symposium to "advance public knowledge and awareness of genetic medicine," Stice said.

Jordan, a key figure in President Jimmy Carter's administration, was diagnosed with histiocytic lymphoma in 1985 after an X-ray showed a golf-ball-sized tumor in his chest.

"The doctor said it was likely cancer," he said. As he waited for the results of his biopsy, "my wife, mom and sister took turns crying for three days as I lay there."

After he was diagnosed, Jordan "went into a funk. I was scared to death. I kind of cut myself off from my family."

Then a doctor friend from UGA dropped by for a visit at the hospital and asked him: "Who is going to have a greater decision in your life than yourself?"

That night, Jordan went down to the hospital's library and started learning about his cancer.

The personal side plays a huge role in the research. But researchers must also keep in mind the legal aspects of stem cells.

As a partner at King and Spalding, Knowles focuses heavily on protecting biotechnology patent portfolios. "You can do all the research you want, but if you're blocked by patents, you'll get nowhere," she told the scientists. "I help get companies and universities through the patent thicket."

As of June 2005, 1,400 patents covered the various aspects of stem cell research. That makes it all the more important for scientists to investigate what has been patented and to get the proper licenses before proceeding with studies.

Although Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is an orthopedic surgeon and third-generation physician, "I'm here to give you opinion," he said. He believes that stem cells, whether embryonic or adult, hold great promise for many diseases and many illnesses. Then he went on to explain the political dilemma.

"Politicians like unanimity," he said. "We don't like controversy. ... We try to help people and make people happy."

And stem cell research, especially embryonic research, is controversial. "With adult and cord cell research, you get into the whole area of political demagoguery," Price said. "Oftentimes it seems in embryonic stem cells that the secret to so many diseases is just months away. This does a disservice to the public, science and those suffering from diseases."

Plus, "the government is not nimble," he said. "You can't get us to move in such a way that responds quickly to issues."

He asked the scientists to educate their politicians, to invite them into the lab and explain their research.

It helps to add a personal view to something as tiny as cells.

"I look at every day differently than before I had these experiences," Jordan said of his battles with cancer. To him, stem cell research is "important to our country, our people and our economy. There's so much to lose here."

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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