“There’s one profession in which people are never wrong, and that’s the ministry. There’s one profession in which people are typically 50 percent wrong, and that’s the law — because when the judge reaches a decision, half of them are right. And there’s another profession in which you’re always wrong, and that’s biology. Because everything you’ve learned in four years will be changed, corrected or debunked. So what we’ve taught you may not be right.” This is what John G. Baust, professor of biological sciences, tells his students.
But one thing is certain about teaching biology in the 21st century: Stem-cell research is changing the way scientists think about diseases. To some people, such research holds the potential for the ultimate cures — letting the paralyzed walk and the blind see. To others, it is ethically murky and morally repugnant.
That’s why two Binghamton professors created Stem Cell Biology I and II — the titles understate the content — in which students learn that besides dividing within a body, stem cells can divide people by their beliefs. Students start at the petri dish and end up discussing bioethics with a Catholic priest who has two PhDs, one each in moral theology and genetics.
“It was nothing like I expected,” says Kenneth Baumann ’11, a PhD student in biological sciences. “I expected a lecture course: This is what stem cells are, this is what they can do, this is the controversy that everyone has been talking about for years and years. But it was far more than that.”
Because the words “stem cell” can trigger an emotional response, it is important to understand the distinctions between the two kinds, embryonic and adult.
Embryonic stem cells divide and differentiate into more than 200 different cell types in the human body, such as heart cells and nerve cells. Adult stem cells also divide, but stay true to their origins and are used to repair and maintain the tissue in which they are found. For instance, skin stem cells produce only new skin cells.
Adult stem cells can be harvested with little impact and have been used therapeutically since the 1970s. “Bone marrow transplants are a classic example of a use that has been extremely successful and saved a lot of lives,” says Robert Van Buskirk, professor of biological sciences.
When embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, the news raised hopes for curing diseases such as diabetes and cancer by injecting new cells into diseased organs or even growing whole organs for transplantation.
It also reignited fears about cloning (Dolly the sheep had been cloned the year before) and intensified debates over when life begins. That’s because embryonic stem cells can be gained only by destroying embryos, most of which are donated “extras” from in vitro fertilization procedures.
Suddenly everyone, from politicians to patients to the pope, was scrambling to understand what might come next.
In 2000, Van Buskirk was teaching a summer course in cell biology at Harvard University. It was 12 weeks of regular-semester material compressed into eight weeks. So he was concerned when he learned a student, an adult named Alfred Cioffi, was going to miss the first week.
“I figured he was a biotech guy,” Van Buskirk says. “Then he showed up and he was Father Cioffi.”
“I said, ‘Why are you taking my course?’ And he said, ‘Because the pope told me to.’”
While politicians debated funding for embryonic stem-cell research, the Catholic Church sent Cioffi, with a PhD in moral theology, back to school to become the expert it would need to help sort out church policies. Van Buskirk’s course was a refresher for the former science teacher and, over occasional lunches, the two began to understand the importance of bridging science and religion.
“He was instrumental in my being accepted at Purdue, but retaking the GREs at 50 was a challenge,” says Cioffi, who earned his PhD in genetics.
Fast forward 12 years. Father Alfred Cioffi, PhD, PhD (Van Buskirk calls him “Dr. Dr. Cioffi”), a bioethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, returns to Baust and Van Buskirk’s classroom, via Skype, to talk with students about bioethics, the Catholic Church and stem cells.
Baust and Van Buskirk have been biotechnology innovators for decades.
Baust is a cell biologist/cryobiologist who developed solutions used for shipping human stem cells for cell therapy. Van Buskirk is a cell biologist/tissue engineer who developed EpiDerm, a stem-cell-derived human skin used for product safety testing and academic research. Baust is lead scientist, and Van Buskirk is vice president, of CPSI Biotech, a private biotech company that does stem-cell research in Owego, N.Y.
“Rob and I work together, but we think very differently,” Baust says. “He has a very progressive view, I have a very conservative view of science and even politics. We’re opposite poles. But as biologists, with the growth of interest in stem-cell research, we needed to understand more.”
With a grant from New York State Stem Cell Science in 2009, they created the course at Binghamton to introduce students to stem cells not just in a laboratory but in a “real-world” environment, in which politics and ethics, religion and medicine, and capitalism and law have the potential to influence how much these biological keys can unlock.
“I’ve been here 25 years,” Van Buskirk says, “and I never thought I’d be teaching a science course that includes a mix of conflicts, bioethics and legal issues. But it makes it so much fun to teach.”
The course starts with the history of stem-cell research. Later, student teams choose a disease for which there is a potential stem-cell therapy and research biotech companies’ therapy strategies from a biological and business perspective.
“The class made me think about current topics in science,” says Sarah Frys ’12. “I took away a deeper understanding of stem cells’ political issues. It forged my ideas of how I feel about stem cells and how others would view that differently.”
Class discussions can veer suddenly between science and speculation.
“It’s an excellent opportunity for a student to say, ‘My grandfather suffered from ...’ and you can talk about the biology of the disease and how stem cells may or may not have played a role,” Baust says.
Inevitably, the right-to-live question comes up. It goes something like this: If my child is dying from a disease for which human embryonic stem cells might hold a cure, then why is the Catholic Church denying her therapy (or why is the U.S. government dragging its feet on funding or why aren’t scientists doing more research?).
“It’s a reasonable question, but it’s one you can’t answer,” Baust says. “We were told five years ago we would have cures based on embryonic stem cells and we’re no closer now than we were five years ago. There is so much we don’t know.”
Baust and Van Buskirk guide the discussions but stay neutral.
“Like abortion, there really is no answer. Your personal answer is dictated by your beliefs or your religion or a combination thereof,” Van Buskirk says.
“Frankly, I see both sides,” Baust admits.
Cioffi, of course, is clear about the Catholic Church’s stance: Using adult stem cells is acceptable; using human embryonic stem cells is not.
“The bioethical distinction between embryonic and adult stem cells is a matter of life and death, especially for the most vulnerable and dependent amongst us: the unborn,” he says.
“Students are intrigued by Cioffi,” Baust says. “I’m surprised by how balanced the student body is with respect to abortion and other issues. I expected a heavy progressive leaning, but they reflect a cross-section of society.”
“Religion was a large point of discussion in the class. I liked when the priest gave his presentation on the Catholic Church’s view of stem cells,” Frys says. “The church was much more progressive about using adult stem cells than I thought.”
Most students may never work with stem cells, but they will know how to think about life-changing discoveries.
“I hope students take away an understanding of how science and society interact in areas of controversy because they are going to experience that for decades to come,” Baust says.
“Topics such as stem-cell research, human cloning, genetically engineered foods, bioterrorism and global warming are all bioethical issues,” Cioffi says. “What this field needs is young people who are willing to use their reason and will to the best of their capacity to make a better world and contribute to the future of humanity.”