On Monday, March the 4th, I attended StemCellTalks; a stem cell conference for high school students. StemCellTalks is an outreach program which aims to provide youth with an interactive and informative forum on stem cells. Addressing both the science behind stem cells and the ethics of stem cells, StemCellTalks aims to improve the public’s understanding of the topics. By involving post-doctoral and graduate student volunteers in combination with amazing speakers, the conference is stimulating and the information is extremely reliable. Going into the symposium, all I really knew about stem cells was that they could be used for amazing things and that they were very controversial. Even though the forum was only a day, I think I learned a lot and I greatly appreciate all the effort that went into planning the event.
Since stem cells are not covered very thoroughly in any high school class, it was definitely necessary to start the day with a Stem Cells 101 speech. Fabio Rossi gave the speech with a guided powerpoint which we all got a copy of. I found that all the speakers, especially Fabio, were great presenters. They really understood their audience and didn’t assume too little or too much when it came to previous knowledge. Best of all, the speakers were all very engaging and charismatic! They did not approach the talk as if it were a lecture which I think many of us really appreciated (or maybe they did and they just are amazing lecturers!).
As I mentioned, the opening speech was fantastic! Fabio Rossi made the comparison of stem cells being like high school students— from high school, we can go in so many different directions just like how stem cells are ability to become so many different things! Stem cells are cells which have the ability to divide and differentiate into diverse specialized cell types. In the body, they take on the roles of maintenance (like replacing blood and skin) and repairing. Adult stem cells can be found in many parts of the body: the brain, eyes, skins, blood, hearts, etc. There are different levels of cell potency which describes the differentiation potential of the cell. I learned about the following three:
Totipotent stem cells can differentiate into embryonic cell types and are produced when an egg and sperm cell fuse. Pluripotent stem cells derive from totipotent and can produce almost every cell in the body! Multipotent stems cells are more specific and can make many things but not all things.
I found this great photo from Sarahwray.com that helps to show the differentiation potential throughout the three levels.
Photo Credit: sarahwray.com
This year was StemCellTalks third annual symposium and they decided to place an emphasis on the potential use of stem cells in cardiovascular diseases. For the remainder of the morning, we discussed how stem cells could be used in this area of science. Scientists debated two case studies and then we (the students) broke into small groups and discussed what we thought of the issue.
Photo credit: nursing-care-plan.blogspot.ca
The first debate topic was replacing damaged tissue versus stimulating repair; and of course, the entire debate was focused around the heart to go allow with the event’s theme. Bruce McManus and Tillie Hackett disputed whether therapies should be developed to replace damaged heart tissue or if heart tissue should be endogenously repaired. Scar tissue can develop on a heart as a result of myocardial infarction – a serious heart disease where plaque builds up in the artery that supplies the heart with nutrients and oxygen, the coronary artery. If the plaques rupture, it can lead to blood clotting and a shortage of oxygen to the heart muscle which can cause scar tissue. Scar tissue cannot contract and therefore the heart doesn’t work properly. McManus and Hackett disputed different methods as to how to try and fix this scar tissue.
There were pros/cons to both arguments. Some included the risks of using drugs to activate endogenous cells and the risk of rejection. Moreover, we were asked what we do in a totally hypothetical environment. Although McManus, without any doubt, won the debate (he had a wonderful powerpoint and was very tactical!), I couldn’t help but side with Hackett when it came to the idea of adding materials to grow new heart tissue that could possibly to be transplanted into a patient’s heart. However, at the end of the session, I was able to speak more with the two and they agreed that future therapies would likely involved a combination of both methods.
The next debate of the morning focused on the principal of using pluripotent stem cells versus using multipotent stem cells for treating cardiac diseases. The key difference between the two is that pluripotent stem cells have a larger range of cells they can eventually turn into and multipotent cells are more differentiated. Additionally, pluripotent cells are a lot easier to obtain but it’s more difficult to have them differentiate into exactly what a heart needs. In a damaged heart, there are a variety of cells that could need to be replaced like cardiomyoctes or pacemaker cells. Since pluripotent stem cells start off much undifferentiated, it is hard to get them to exactly what the heart would need. In fact, scientists are still working on a way to do this. Undifferentiated cells can form teratomas. A teratoma is a tumor that can be composed of bone, teeth or hair. Basically, it’s a mess from cells that just didn’t know what to do! Once again, we were asked to make a decision. For those of you who don’t know, I am a horrible decision maker, especially when there really isn’t a correct answer! I think the pros and cons for both sides seemed pretty even. What do you think about this? If you were given all the resources and money for a research project would you start with multipotent stem cells or pluripotent?
Photo credit: mscreprosciences2012.blogspot.ca
The afternoon of StemCellTalks shifted from the science of stem cells to the ethics of them, which I think was equally as interesting. We began with an excellent talk from Ubaka Ogbogu. And when I say excellent, I really mean it! Stem cells are controversial because of a type of stem cells called embryonic stem cells. It boils down to how a country views the moral status of a human embryo and what stage of development an embryo gains personhood. Different people, organizations, and countries all have different opinions on these issues and they influence the research that is done in this field.
In Canada, stem cell research is allowed however, as stated on the Stem Cell Network, it is governed the Tri-Council Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS), the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (2004, c.2; AHRA) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) There are specific guidelines that must be followed in all types of stem cell research – Updated Guidelines for Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Research. There are many rules and exceptions when it comes to the use of embryonic stem cells because of the moral ethics behind them.
We further discussed the idea of stem cell tourism. Hundreds of desperate individuals leave their home countries in order to undergo promising stem cell treatments from, more often than not, fraudulent clinics. These clinics have created a premature market for treatments and therapies which are not yet fully understood. They promise success with no side effects and coincidently lack any scientific evidence to back up their guarantees. Patients are driven by hope and desperation which causes them to shell out thousands of dollars for these treatments. As much as outside forces attempt to shut down these sorts of clinics, they just keep on popping up. Ubaka Ogbogu described the issue as a “whack-a-mole problem!” Clinics that are closed just re-open under new names in new locations.
As unfortunate as it is that individuals are spending thousands of dollars and are not receiving any positive results, the issue can get even worse. Clinics that are using stem cells incorrectly or without the proper clinical trials can kill their patients or leave them 10 times worse. As reported in MailOnline, a lady who thought she was receiving a new stem cell facelift developed bones growing in her EYES!
We took a look at how different groups view stem cells; the media, patients, government, clinicians, and scientists. No matter which point of view, there are always hard controversial decisions that need to be made. How can scientists do ethical stem cell research? Should clinicians be able to recommend overseas stem cell treatments if their patient is dying? Is it fair for government officials to put restrictions on potentially life saver research? I think the discussions surrounding stem cells could really go on and on for hours because there is still so much to learn in this field. Additionallly, this blog post could go on and on about the other fascinating things I learned and the ideas that were provoked.
StemCellTalks holds symposia in six different cities across Canada; luckily, one of the six was Vancouver (my hometown)! I think science conferences like this one are events that teens do not get to experience a lot and this just made StemCellTalks an even more valuable day. I was really impressed by the level of engagement of some of my peers who were wholeheartedly curious about the topic. I was equally impressed by how committed and informative the speakers and volunteers were. They really knew how to approach their audience and made the day very memorable.