October 25, 2004

Two Nobel scientists campaign for 'change'

The Sentinel

By Kristin Wilson, October 23, 2004

Two Nobel Prize-winning scientists visited Penn State Dickinson School of Law Friday to encourage people to vote on what they believe are critical election issues.

They are campaigning to increase awareness about scientific issues, including stem cell research.

"We see the Bush administration making important decisions in a totally nonscientific way," says Dr. Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel Prize in 1989 for studies surrounding the genetic basis of cancer. He is now president and chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Varmus and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Sidney Altman belong to "Scientists and Engineers For Change," formed to show the impact the 2004 presidential election could have on the future of U.S. science and technology. More than a dozen scientists will be visiting swing states leading up to the Nov. 2 election.

"We can tell that the process is wrong," Varmus says. "This administration is exerting its weight in ways that are tremendously inappropriate. We can't afford another four years."

'Denial of facts'

Varmus, who served as director of the National Institutes of Health under former President Bill Clinton, says he's witnessed a "real denial in facts" when the current administration tackles scientific issues.

He claims there is a general unwillingness to weigh all scientific viewpoints on critical issues.

Altman says he shares this view, particularly when it comes to stem cell research.

"What I'm worried about is a movement to cut off research in a basic area of investigation," says the 1989 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry. Altman is currently the Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University. "We have the freedom to investigate these questions as much as we want."

Altman says scientists and researchers are only starting to understand stem cells and what could potentially be gained by understanding how life-forming cells work.

Altman and Varmus say the Bush administration is trying to cut off all future research in this area and stifling the scientific environment in the U.S.

President Bush "talks about balancing science and ethics, but there is no balance," says Altman. "We've never had anyone try to outlaw questions of investigation of scientific fact."

2 sources of cells

Stem cell research involves the dissection of human embryos, which some people equate to abortion. Altman says these stem cells are "undifferentiated," meaning they have not yet formed into any of the 200 types of cells found in the human body. Bush's policy limits federal funding for this stem cell research to lines in existence as of three years ago.

Other stem cells are found in human bone marrow.

Altman and Varmus spoke to a crowd of about 100, including law school students and professors, Dickinson College students and members of the community. The speech was also broadcast to an audience of about 100 at Penn State Hershey Medical School.

Many in the audience say there seems to be little public knowledge of the scientific principles behind controversial issues such as stem cell research. Some say they attended Friday's lecture in an attempt to learn more about how the issue plays into politics.

"I thought the information was illuminating," says Penn State Harrisburg professor Meg Jaster. She says although she is a Catholic, she believes it's important to look at issues based on critical information, not just emotional responses. She says the presidential candidates have dealt with many scientific issues only with an emotional reaction.

"A lot of people take a stand about stem cell research, but they're kind of ignorant about what actually is being done," says Dickinson College student Annelies Rhodes.

'Not a moral issue'

Stem cell research "is not a moral issue," Altman says. "President Bush thinks it's a moral issue, but it's not."

The Bush administration is not alone in its concerns about stem cell research. The political, scientific, religious and social implications have been debated around the world.

Yet understanding such cells could lead to effective treatment for diabetes, heart disease and spinal-cord injuries.

This week, actor Christopher Reeve's widow, Dana, joined Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for a campaign speech to support Kerry's intention to expand federally-funded embryonic stem cell research.

Reeve became an advocate of spinal cord research, including looser restrictions on stem cell research, after a horse riding accident left him a quadriplegic for the last nine years of his life.

Altman and Varmus say regardless of religious or political beliefs, it's important for the American people to consider the scientific discovery process and how they want science to be developed in years to come.

2004 The Sentinel.

Posted by jmellicant at October 25, 2004 10:59 AM