ON WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 11th, we met Irv Weissman, a Professor of Pathology and Developmental Biology at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, the only cancer stem cell center of its kind. He spoke to the class of ME410B about his research, and labs, where he has worked to purify and isolate blood forming stem cells in mice and humans. His lab has also mapped the stages and development of these cells. Weismann's work has proven extremely relevant and progressive, as it is thought that some cancers are driven by self-renewing, very dangerous cancer cells. Once identified, in solid and blood cancers, scientists can work to implement more effective cancer treatments. He has also been involved in studying genes and proteins associated with cell adhesion. Although quite controversial, Weissman’s work, has contributed greatly to our understanding of the stem cell, and cancer treatments. Much of his work deals with ethical issues, the origins of life, more often than not, a controversial and sensitive issue.
WHATS THE BIGGEST LEGAL OR ETHICAL ISSUE PREVENTING THE ADVANCEMENT OF STEM CELL RESEARCH?
Weissman’s answer involved two parties against Proposition 71 that enabled and funded stem Cell Research in California in 2004: The Catholic Church and The Southern Baptists filed suit against the voter-approved Proposition [won 59% to 41%].. He explained “they are the ones that are trying to block the legislation, trying to block embryonic stem cellresearch...It just seems to be part of their mantra." Much of his work stands in direct ethical opposition to the beliefs of the Catholic Church and The Southern Baptist group that filed suit, both of which believe life starts at the moment of fertilization. Naturally, this can cause issues for Weissman, his research and his lab.
WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST CONCERN ABOUT LONG TERM OR FUTURE APPLICATIONS OF STEM CELL DISCOVERIES?
Weissman admitted that this question was rather difficult for him to answer, but shared some of his thoughts with us. He explained to us that The Church is very clear in its intentions and doctrines in secular states. In the 1980s, when Weissman was on the AIDS commission of the National Academy of Sciences the Church was opposed to federal authorities developing educational outreach to share information in regards to how AIDS is spread, and how condoms can act as a form of protection. According to him, they desire to "impose their religion on everyone in that country", which can slow down progress. He has learned to counter these arguments, and stand firm in his beliefs, as was clearly evident in what he shared with us, in class. Another thing he learned while on that commission was that they got testimony from insurance company representatives outlined as such: if the AIDs epidemic led to public health measures to inform people and their families that they had HIV infection, and it became known publicly, the insurance companies would modify their policies to exclude payent for AIDS-related care under health insurance. After that the commission could not recommend measures based on knowledge of HIV status to control the epidemic.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE LESSONS THAT YOU LEARNED?
Weissman is considering whether to start his own company, and has most definitely learned from a few of his past experiences. He has founded or co-founded several companies, and each doing adult blood or brain stem cell research has succeeded in showing safety and measurable efficacy with the therapies, but in the past the clinical success was not followed by carrying the therapies to the clinic, especially with regard to the use of blood forming stem cells. The companies that purchased the therapy, or venture funds that gained control of the Boards through iterative financings based their decisions on how much the product would make in the near term vs other products in their portfolio, and did not carry the therapies forward. He proposes to do some things differently in the future so that the scientist founders who brought the project to success need to have a greater say in the direction the cmopany chooses to follow. . There are several ways to do this, but all are out of the ordinary way to develop a company. He explained that in most companies the investors control the direction the company makes, and the function of the company is centered on profits, not necessarily advancing human health, and he is hesitant to put himself in that position. He doesn’t want money to be making decision, within the first three years, as opposed to the people who truly understand the field.
He also alluded to the fact that, communicating his thoughts and ideas, in a relatable fashion was key to helping people understand foreign concepts in the medical field, and offering them his perspective on stem cells and his area of expertise.
HOW DO YOU MAKE PEOPLE LISTEN TO YOU/HOW DO YOU TRY AND MAKE THAT IMPACT WHEN IT SEEMS THAT SO MANY PEOPLE ARE IN IT FOR THE QUICK BUCK?
Weissman stated: “I do it all in plain English”. He’s been explaining science and his findings for quite some time, replacing obscure scientific jargon with comprehensible English, and speaking in public places, where people want to hear his story. He paints a clear picture for people and lets them follow. He encourages them to think about the issue at hand. This is precisely what he did when he was campaigning for Props 71.
Weissman was able to participate in the writing of a state proposition, that allowed for the advancement of stem cell research, in California. This will allow for people to continue learning about the field of medicine, and the potential that stem cell research has to improve the human condition.
ASIDE FROM STEM CELLS WHAT FIELD DO YOU THINK HAS THE MOST OPPORTUNITY IN MEDICINE
“Stem cells are number 1, 2, 3....”
All joking aside Weissman spoke a little bit about stem cell and medical research using human cells in addition to animal and petri dish research, and the impact this field is having on regenerative medicine and cancer, and in the near future, in the neurosciences. If research in these fields are effective, it will allow for us to discover the causes of many degenerative diseases and autoimmune diseases. He also spoke about the power of genomics and molecular biology: what cells make which RNA and proteins, and fitting them together with familial patterns of disease.
SEEING AS YOU HAVE TAKEN YOUR WORK ALL THE WAY TO CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS, WHICH ACCOMPLISHMENT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT?
“Memorizing enough to get into med school. I can’t remember things unless I know the experiment that lead to them.” said Weissman.
He has debated about stem cell research with leaders in his field and the medical space, but made it a point to share his thoughts on Med schools, and the unnecessary amount of memorization and jargon that, for him, was involved in gaining admission into Med School.
HOW CAN PEOPLE WHO DON’T HAVE SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUNDS WORK IN A FIELD SUCH AS YOURS, WITHOUT HAVING A SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUND. IS THERE SPACE FOR US?
“Of course there’s space.”
He shared a couple of stories with us, about students who had become involved in his field, and have made significant contributions in patent law, or health administration, and as design and computer science students. He explains that “you can see your way in if that’s what you really want to do. You can try and do it in didactic courses.” A lot of courses seem to be pure memorization but he advises to look for small classes, as the teachers will know they are talking to non-scientists. And to get some real hands on experience in a lab to understand how hard it is to unearth the secrets of how the body works, and also to understand the reality of discovery as opposed to memorizing facts without understanding the experiments that established, or diminished certain ‘facts’.
HOW FAR AWAY DO YOU THINK WE ARE AWAY FROM ALGORITHMS DOING A DOCTOR'S JOB?
Weissman promptly answered with “we are there; there are machines that are looking at slides, coming close to what pathologists take years learning what to do."