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State award will fund stem-cell courses

By : Eric Coker

A state grant will enable the University to offer courses on stem-cell research in the future.

Binghamton University was one of five New York schools to receive funding for Undergraduate Curricula on Stem Cell Science and Related Ethical, Legal and Societal Implications. Binghamton’s grant of nearly $300,000 will fund two courses that could start as soon as spring 2010. The classes will be taught by Robert Van Buskirk and John Baust, professors of biological sciences.

“Dr. Baust and I hope that by offering these courses, they will have a positive effect on the University where students see this and say ‘Wow! I didn’t know anyone was involved with this type of activity at the University.’” Van Buskirk said.

Van Buskirk, a cell biologist/tissue engineer who co-developed EpiDerm, a stem cell-derived human skin, will teach The Biotechnology of Stem Cells. The course will be for biology majors who want an in-depth examination of the subject. This course will also require students to write draft scientific and business grants focused on stem cells similar those submitted to the National Institutes of Health.

Baust, a cell biologist/cryobiologist who led the development and commercialization of a line of cell preservation media utilized for shipping stem cells for cell therapy, will teach a companion course called The Commercialization of Stem Cells. In addition to typical course work, this class will challenge students to focus on the business of science through the development of a business plan for future stem cell companies.

“When we started the process, we sat down and thought that with all of the experiences we have in biotechnology, how can we bring this science and excitement to undergraduates?” Van Buskirk said. “We actually came up with this concept some time ago and when this Request for Applications (RFA) was announced, it seemed to be a perfect opportunity. This will be the mechanism by which we can bring our experiences in science, technology and business to the students.”

Two other factors make the courses unique, Van Buskirk said. Students will have an opportunity to perform actual laboratory research with various model cell systems, including non-human stem cells, through an internship at CPSI, a local biotech company.

“Through the internship program, students will be able to say, ‘I had the opportunity to be exposed to the biotech corporate environment,’” Van Buskirk said. “That piece on a CV could be very powerful when applying and interviewing for positions in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries where a lot of stem cell research is being conducted today.”

Given the controversies sounding the topic of stem cell research, the program has integrated a core component on bioethics discussion, including guest lectures by a bioethicist. In this regard, Van Buskirk looked to his past and found one with an unusual background.

The Rev. Alfred Cioffi, a Roman Catholic priest from Miami, was a summer student of Van Buskirk’s at Harvard a decade ago. The church wanted Cioffi to take cell biology and neurobiology courses and earn a doctorate so he could serve on the National Catholic Bioethics Committee. Cioffi received his PhD in molecular biology and teaches bioethics courses today. He also donated a kidney to a former parishioner in 2008.

Cioffi agreed to help Van Buskirk and Baust in the program and will travel to Binghamton University to give guest lectures as well as be involved in other classes via online participation. Van Buskirk considers Cioffi, who will present a balanced view examining various religions’ positions on stem cells, one of the most impressive people he has ever met.

“His life was set,” Van Buskirk said. “He was running a diocese in Miami until the Catholic church called and said, ‘This is what we need you to do.’ His entire life changed.”

Van Buskirk hopes the two courses will not only serve as the foundation for a stem cell-based curriculum similar to those offered by schools such as Harvard, but also as a model for other schools to follow. He and Baust plan to record courses so others can consider if they would want to teach them. CD-ROMs will be created and course contents will be available online.

Van Buskirk also said the courses could also help attract undergraduates and graduate students who have an interest in studying in the areas of regenerative medicine and cell therapy.

“If I were a prospective student at any level and saw two stem-cell courses with an entrepreneurial slant, I’d be quite interested,” he said. “It would suggest to me that these are cutting-edge, modern, business-like, cross-disciplinary programs that offer tremendous learning and exposure opportunities.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08