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Scientist Revives ResearchBy Danny Ash
Published Friday 23 January 2009 03:03am EST.
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Twelve years ago, Irving Weissman discovered a treatment that might have saved the lives of thousands of women with advanced breast cancer, but pharmaceutical companies weren’t interested in developing the therapy. Though that interest is finally being reignited, Weissman doesn’t pull any punches. “I hate to say I told you so,” he said.
Weissman, a professor of pathology and developmental biology at Stanford University, spoke Wednesday and Thursday as part of the Columbia University Department of Religion’s Bampton Lecture series. The lecture series is modeled after a centuries-old Oxford series of the same name, and invites famous authorities in their respective fields to give talks on various issues of interest to the religious community.
In Wednesday’s lecture, Weissman laid out the conceptual foundation of his work—that stem cells are rare, self-renewing, and can regenerate body tissues. Weissman repeatedly expressed frustration that while many of his discoveries seemed to hold remarkable potential for life-saving treatments, commercial or regulatory hurdles have prevented his scientific research from benefiting human beings.
One example is Weissman’s mid-’90s research on type I diabetes, in which he demonstrated the ability to fully cure type I diabetes in mice using stem cells. But even though the experiments avoided political controversy by using so-called adult stem cells, which do not come from embryos, Weissman ran into a road block when pharmaceutical companies refused to sponsor clinical trials. The therapy went nowhere. Weissman implied that the pharmaceutical companies had put profit over principle, preferring to keep diabetes sufferers dependent on costly insulin than to cure them once and for all.
“He [Weissman] has a long history of being at the forefront of his field,” Arthur Palmer, professor of structural biology at Columbia said, remarking that Weissman has never been afraid to challenge scientific orthodoxy.
One example of this iconoclastic streak is Weissman’s outspoken disagreement with recent reports that adult stem cells can be “reprogrammed,” obliviating the need for the more powerful embryonic stem cells.
Weissman geared his presentation to a lay audience, only occasionally drifting into jargon. Jaffer Kolb, who was visiting his sister at Columbia, enjoyed Weissman’s talk. “I have no science background,” he said, “so I was afraid I would have a hard time. But it was really easy to follow.”
The presentation left some audience members with questions. Susan Doubileg, a Columbia alumna, wondered if Weissman’s results were as conclusive as presented. “If they were so useful, why weren’t they picked up in other countries?” she asked, referring to Europe’s less restrictive stem cell regulations. Nonetheless, Palmer cautioned against dismissing Weissman’s research. “He’s been right a lot in the past,” he said.
Weissman’s final two lectures are scheduled for Jan. 27 and Jan. 29, from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. in IAB 1501.
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