Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When religion gets in the way of saving lives

Strange beliefs, dogma and irrationality, all getting in the way of saving lives. Robert Lanza, a leading researcher on stem cell and cloning shares with us the problems he face in bringing his works from the realms of research to hospitals, in an interview with DISCOVER. The following are excerpts from his interview with Discover.

"So you went to ACT and asked for a job?

Before they would hire me, they gave me a task that was like bringing back the witch’s broom. There was a question about whether the National Institutes of Health would allow the work. Even though this was for therapy and not reproduction, it still involved cloning embryos, and the public was totally against it. Many considered it murder. So I was asked to get all the Nobel laureates in the country to sign a letter to support embryonic stem cell research, addressed to Harold Varmus, the head of the NIH. This was in the old days, when everything was by fax. Actually, I had this whole drawer of all the letters signed by 70 Nobel laureates. The effort was published in Science, and a few months later, many college presidents also signed on.

At the time, ACT was a subsidiary of a poultry genetics company, doing work in agriculture. When I joined they made the move from animal cloning to human therapy, and we knew we would get hit, big-time. I may be the only person who’s had the [Catholic] Church, the pope, and a couple of presidents condemn my work. At one point we had bodyguards here. There was a bombing up the street; then a doctor at a local in vitro fertilization clinic was targeted. I didn’t think I would be alive for more than a few years."

"You’re launching the future of medicine, but it is still on hold.
Rather than curing disease, we’re trying to get around theological problems. It’s not what I signed up for in medical school. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown my hands up and said, “Enough, I can’t take it anymore,” but then I’m back the next day. We’re crippled, but they can’t stop us forever. We’ve now got enough irons in the fire and hopefully ways to bypass many of these objections. But it’s just a shame that the research has been held up so long. We’re living through a paradigm shift. People are going to look back at us and say, “They used to cut people’s legs off.” Then they’ll just give an injection and the blood flow will be restored and the limb saved. If I were a patient and I knew I was going to have my leg cut off and something could be done, I would be demanding it. But most people, even most scientists, don’t realize what we’re capable of. I realize it because I’m doing the work and I can see what’s possible before my eyes."

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