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'Hope Summit' to discuss stem cells and scientific literacy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2010 - The controversy and arguments over stem cell research may have left the front pages, but that doesn't mean the issue has gone away.

The Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures hopes to help educate the public on the science of stem cell research by holding a first-of-its-kind local conference on stem cells on Sat., Jan. 23. The "Hope Summit" starts at 8 a.m. and continues all day at the Sheraton St. Louis City Center Hotel and Suites.

Importance of Scientific literacy

"The stem cell issue is exhibit A for the broad disconnect between science and the American public," said Mooney, journalist and author of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future."

"Science doesn't get through to the audiences that need it most," he said. These audiences, he said, include politicians, journalists, religious believers, average citizens, and even the entertainment industry.

According to Mooney, scientific literacy enables people "to use science-based critical thinking to make decisions in their own lives." He cites as one example the decisions people must make when they receive conflicting medical advice. But beyond the individual, he explained, a public literate in science leads to better decision-making in government.

"I believe every citizen in the United States needs to know how science determines the course of public policy," he said. "If American citizens don't understand how science is shaping the future via issues like stem cells or climate change, or that it's important to thrive in science to be able to compete in the global economy, the national future suffers."

Debate on Stem cell research

And medical research, specifically, suffers when policy limits the use of stem cells, according to Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, a medical doctor and professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University in St. Louis. Teitelbaum, another of Hope Summit's speakers, will present advances in stem cell research.

Much of the debate over research with stem cells centers on those obtained from human embryos. Groups that oppose embryonic stem cell research point to advances that enable scientists to make cells with many properties of embryonic stem cells from already mature cells, not from human embryos.

With this type of advance, they argue that embryonic stem cell research is no longer necessary. "There is an assumption that because we have adult stem cells, we don't need embryonic stem cells," said Teitelbaum. But he points out the shortcomings of this argument.

"We don't know if these cells are as good as the gold standard. There have been remarkable breakthroughs, but you don't stop the science because you've made major breakthroughs," he said. Science is unpredictable, explained Teitelbaum. "We don't know what is going to work and therefore we have to throw out a broad net," he said.

With a broad net and without limits on avenues of research, Teitelbaum explains, scientists are more likely to find something unexpected, which is where the great breakthroughs come from. "You don't win the Nobel Prize for finding something that's expected," he said.

Potential for Medical advances

Though much research on stem cells is still in its earliest stages -- at the bench, on lab animals, and at the very beginning of the Food and Drug Administration's approval process for human trials -- it is important for the public to be aware of the ongoing work, not least because it provides hope.

"If anyone is affected by or has a loved one who is affected by heart disease, or macular degeneration, or diabetes, or spinal cord injury, this is exactly the kind of information they need to hear," said Jim Goodwin, director of communications for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, the summit's sponsor. "This is very exciting work for anyone who suffers with these health issues," he said.

"We think it's important to present this information to interested Missourians and let them know about the progress that's going on," said Goodwin. "They need to know what researchers are doing and how someday those treatments might come about," he said.

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis. She is a 2009 Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and holds a master's degree in biomedical engineering.