Seventh- and eighth-grade students from the South Area Solomon Schecter Day School in Stoughton, Mass., engaged a panel of eminent research scientists from MIT and Harvard in a discussion of stem cell research, technology and ethics on Friday, Dec. 16, in Room 54-100.
The panelists for the morning event were Elazer Edelman, director of the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center; Lita Nelsen, director of the MIT Technology Licensing Office; Daniel Brock, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School; Frederick Schoen, chief of cardiac pathology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a faculty member of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences Technology (HST); and Lino da Silva Ferreira, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT researching the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells for tissue engineering.
Some of the students' questions mirrored those in contemporary media, such as, "How do you respond to criticism that stem cell research is killing human beings?"
Brock said, "Human embryos are clearly alive, so one is killing something. They're clearly human; they're not frogs. But we have to ask, have they the properties of a normal human, such as consciousness, suffering and the capacity to plan for the future?"
Edelman (S.B. 1978, S.M. 1979, Ph.D. 1984) surprised the youngsters by using his experience as a cardiac specialist to refocus the question "When does life begin?" to "When does life end?" as a way to widen the debate.
"Every day I make that decision. When do I tell someone their loved one is gone? When do I tell them there's hope? We don't know scientifically when life begins. But without stem cell research, we'll never be able to give any other than religious or cultural answers," he said.
Some students sought specifically to understand the role and motivations of mothers, asking, "Is it possible to save the embryo after you remove stem cells?", "Can the embryo be returned to the mother?" and "Why do women donate spare embryos to research?"
Nelsen, who earned the B.S. (1964) and M.S. (1966) in chemical engineering and an M.S. in management (1979), all from MIT, said, "Scientists weigh what potentially might result, in alleviating suffering and pain, from destroying that little dot-sized group of cells.
"Women weigh this, too. There are many embryos in the freezer that are left over from in vitro fertilization -- embryos that are not going to be 'adopted' or implanted -- and it's the mother who decides to donate them to further research, to help others," she said.
Schoen added that the benefits of stem cell research are not only the ends -- a cure for Parkinson's, for instance -- but also the means, as discoveries are made en route.
"We learn a lot along the way that may have benefits. The process of research generates a lot of information for scientists," said Schoen.
One teaching moment came when Edelman cleared up a basic vocabulary puzzle, brought on by youth and the cavernous nature of 54-100.
To the student who asked, "How can you tell the difference between embryos that are more or less valuable?" Edelman replied, "The issue is not whether it's valuable. It's whether the embryo is viable. Viable means, strictly, capable of becoming life."
Surveying the now-restless group of young teens, Edelman offered some advice. "If you choose a career in science, make sure you help people understand what you do. That will always be part of your work," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 21, 2005 (download PDF).