Poetry with Pinsky

First a confession: I’m in the meet and greet line after poet extraordinaire Robert Pinsky  read and described his work to a crowd from his (and my children’s) hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey, when the woman who had been behind me is suddenly in front of me. My hobbling husband is waiting at the front and, being both a little wound up and vaguely concerned about how long he would have to stand there leaning on his cane, I say to her, "You cut in line." To which she replies, "No, I didn’t." "Yes, you did," I insist. Then, with electric poodle hair and glowering eyes, she turns fully in my face and roars, "Shut up! Lady." Whoaoaoaoa.

I’m not sure I said anything after that. I think I grumbled under my breath a bit, then waved my spouse over and whispered in his ear. Not shy of anything or anyone, he reprimands her. We enter the Twilight Zone . Woman, to me, seething: "I’m the chair of the English department, retired. I’m going to write a short story about you!" Hah! Lady. What? Are you kidding? "Journalist," I retort. "I’ll write about you," and here I am, hesitant to embarrass an elder statesman of the field, but how can I resist sharing such an absurdity as dueling exposure threats? It is the one sour note from a delightful afternoon. Obviously, I should have just let her pass. Normally, I would have. What’s the harm after all?

I fell a little bit in love with the poet, I think, and was, probably like her, eager to get to him and, yes, to my own sweet spouse. On the way to the car after we have our brief interlude with Pinsky, I say to Jeff, "This is classic. I confront someone for being out of turn. They threaten me with ‘Do you know who I am?’ which never, ever, ever elicits the desired response, and our experience is sullied while she goes on to schmooze with the luminaries." When will I learn?

Robert Pinsky grew up the son of an optician, on Rockwell Avenue, which bisects the street where life was happiest for me and mine . It was happy there for Pinsky too. He called Long Branch  a town of "strong character" and "significance" in American history. Seven presidents vacationed there, lounging on or near the beach at the end of my street, which is now a part of Seven Presidents Park . James Garfield died in Long Branch . Ailing after the assassination attempt that eventually killed him, he insisted on traveling to his summer home to recover. Railroad tracks were laid to get him to the Elberon section of town. (Elberon is now the providence of Orthodox Jews who reside under the multi-town Eruv that extends the boundaries of "home" on the sabbath.) Garfield expired upon arrival. A bronze statue of the unimpressive president graces the beachfront promenade in front of the Ocean Place Resort. A worker from the sanitation department painted it gold one year, if I recall correctly. Not a great career move. About as wise as a public duel.

Anyway, Pinsky wrote a poem about Rockwell Avenue called "The Street." The woman sitting behind me at the reading was first with her hand up during the Q&A. She too had grown up on Rockwell Ave. and wanted to know why he’d written such a poem, about the seedier side of life there. She had been embarrassed by their street way back when. He said he had too … until he realized what rich material the experience had provided for his poetry. Everything is clay for writers.

The first poem Pinsky read was an entirely American one that basically said to Long Branch, to his ancestors, to all who would claim him, "I don’t belong to you or need you. I belong to myself alone." He then explained that once one stands up to stereotypes that threaten to define, one can wrap one’s arms around their own heritage.  His theme was lifted from a Zulu ethic he had heard on a trip to Africa. "We do not worship our ancestors; we consult them" … and/or argue with them … be they Jersey, Jewish or literary. Then he read a couple love poems to his home town.

Clearly Pinsky’s ancestors in the university auditorium on Friday afternoon were proud of him. He, the son of a "nominally Orthodox" Jewish family, was allowed to bring pizza home from Nunzio’s on Westwood Avenue, but only if he and his father confined themselves to the piano bench while they ate. Pinsky went to synagogue across the street from one of the town’s Catholic churches. On Saturdays, he watched lovely, forbidden Catholic girls going to and fro, and later was inspired to write "From the Childhood of Jesus ," a poem he said was about the two things he hated most as a child: Judaism and Christianity, because they tried to tell him who he was and who he wasn’t. (Read it and you’ll understand.) Later he would embrace both religions as ancestors. Judaism in obvious ways; Christianity as the keeper of his language.

Someone asked him why, as a Jew, he would write a translation of Dante’s Inferno . He scoffed and rebuked the woman. The language that he loves was carried along by the Christian faith. He said he isn’t even a translator, but a poet who redeemed the work from the literalists by giving it back its beauty … to great effect, I assume. The work has repaid him handsomely.

What I most appreciated from the Q&A was when Pinsky said it is no tragedy for artists to earn their bread through menial labor. He’d always assumed that would be his lot. He is a teacher by trade. Growing up at the Jersey Shore as the grandson of a bootlegger and bar owner, he had known many gifted musicians who spent their days cutting hair, etc., and, one presumes, their summer nights entertaining tourists. It is no tragedy.

Someone asked for a definition of poetry. Pinsky didn’t blink: "Poetry," he said,  "is making works of art from the sound of language."

The hometown boy served three unprecedented terms as U.S. Poet Laureate . Predictably, he claimed not to care about such things. He is very proud, however, of his Favorite Poem Project , through which thousands of ordinary Americans have shared their passion for poetry.

Pinsky won my heart because he spoke my native tongue in my native place. He is not just a writer; he is a thinker with a Jersey Shore sensibility. A sensibility that is no nonsense; fierce; honest; a little bit raucous and irreverent; beauty loving. Beautiful.

The Short Term Future of Stem Cell Funding

 California Stem Cell Report appropriately opines

As California’s public universities are turning away students and state cash is being cut for projects ranging from research labs to affordable housing, the California stem cell agency is on track to give away $66 million later this month.

The awards will come following CIRM‘s handout of more than $19 million last month.

No one – except for those congenitally opposed to hESC work — is contending that all these millions are going to unworthy scientists or to dubious research. But the CIRM giveaways stand in marked contrast to what is happening to the rest of the state in the light of its $40 billion budget crisis.

If CIRM were, say, part of the state Department of Health, chances are good that it would not be able to spend taxpayer money so freely.

The disparity raises major public policy issues about the use of ballot initiatives to promote and protect various causes. Should the elderly and poor see their much-needed assistance and medical care cut while cash flows unimpeded, in this case, to researchers, some of whom are already exceedingly well funded?

A ballot initiative, Prop. 71, is just what created the $3 billion stem cell effort in 2004 – not carefully crafted legislation hammered out over months with all parties having their say in public. The measure was drafted in secret by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein (with the help of a couple of others he rarely acknowledges) and placed on the ballot with a signature-gathering effort that probably cost $1 to $2 million. (That is the most common way of placing an initiative on the ballot in California – hiring firms that specialize in such efforts and paying them on a per signature basis.)

It’s an especially timely thought given that President Obama made this oblique statement in his Inaugural Address:

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.

 … leaving both Ted Olsen and me wondering if he’s about to upend Bush on federal funding for Human Embryonic Stem Cell research  … when there ain’t no money for nothin’.  But then, there’s still Dickey-Wicker to contend with.

Thinking about Religion, Belief & Politics @ Princeton

The inaugural Danforth Lecture at Princeton University was a lucky little feast for the brain Thursday afternoon. CUNY anthropologist Talal Asad gave a breathtaking talk on “Thinking About Religion, Belief and Politics.” I hadn’t expected Charles Taylor to be the subject of Asad’s elegant dissection, but there it was: A Secular Age fileted and served on ice. 

This eminent scholar/author said Taylor’s seminal work deals with personal crisis of belief that are insufficient to the global crisis of our time. He argued that beliefs formed through external acts of devotion and training are not inherently coercive, but can lead to authentic faith and the formation of a moral personality. Asad appeared to be making a case for non-Judeo-Christian, or, at least non-Protestant, religious influence in the public square. He spent precious little time talking directly about politics, but instead drew an entertaining connection between the development of public ventilation systems and narcissistic notions of belief.

Asad objected to an audience member’s suggestion that he dismiss religion outright as a dangerous force that wants to control other people’s bodies. He said the secular/religious debate is tired and suggested that market forces can be at least as coercive as religion. He cited coercion of women’s bodies as an insightful example. 

Although the lecturer expressed faith in liberal democratic values, he has comparatively little faith that states can effectively implement those values. He concluded by confessing doubt that mankind will see the next century. With such apocolyptic vision, one wonders where he gets off saying personal faith is insufficient to the times. Perhaps he thinks no other kind will hold sway in coming decades.

Ah well. My momentary USC advisor Diane Winston tipped me off to Princeton Religion Department public offerings. I had been lamenting the loss of such local events at USC and UCI, but found this first lecture a more than adequate substitute. Thanks to Ed Gilbreath, I’ve also been reading the blog of two Princeton professors lately. Check it out; it’s called The Kitchen Table.

The Princeton University Art Museum is likewise a lovely place to spend an afternoon. The museum is free and contains a good deal of compelling Christian art and iconography. There are also a couple witty architectural exhibits right now and a nice collection of ancient art, including Roman floor and wall mosaics. Strolling the campus, parts of which date back to 1756, is itself an exercise in art appreciation.

My husband’s handicapped tag came in handy on this trip. A quick phone call to the PU parking office and we were waved in to park on campus. Between the museum and the lecture, I dragged him to the Whole Earth Natural Grocery, which has been selling bulk health foods on Nassau Street since the 1970s. The last time I was there, it was a warm, earthy place. A low VOC renovation has left the store feeling sterile, cold and utterly suburban. Still, I stocked up on brown rice, Kombu seaweed (which is supposed to reduce the gassiness of beans when a couple 1-inch chunks are thrown in the pot) and other vegan staples. 

On the drive to Princeton, I was struck once again by the subtle beauty of my state. We passed quaint farms, small towns and mile after mile of hearty pine. A gas station on Rte. 33 was simultaneously selling Chicken Parmesan sandwiches and gas for under $2-a-gallon. Can’t beat that.

At dinner on the same road in Hightstown (half way between home and Princeton), a high school classmate of my husband’s was working as a waitress. Dinner was lousy. We should have eaten down the road at Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty instead. Baker’s original Lobster Shanty is a landmark in my home town of Point Pleasant Beach. I went to high school with his children, one of whom is a longtime friend.

We were at a delightful party together last night. There was plenty of good wine, lots of laughter and a passionate debate amongst old friends the likes of which I imagine taking place in Republican living rooms from coast to heretical coast. The topic? What does it mean to be a Conservative? What went wrong in ’08? And since when did disagreement mean one’s conservative and/or spiritual credentials are suspect?

Have I mentioned lately how glad I am to be home?

I have a job interview Tuesday. Send up a prayer for me if you’re so inclined. I’ve been told to prepare for a two-hour introduction.

Some Thoughts on Substance at Saddleback

My thoughts on the Saddleback Forum on the Presidency? Overall, I thought John McCain looked and sounded really old. I thought he spoke in sound bites. I thought it was absurd that he had to reach back some forty years for a story about his faith. I agreed with young Brian and Lauren in that he reminded me of a grandpa reliving (and relying on) his glory days rather than a future-focused leader. In short, I thought Obama was the more thoughtful, engaging candidate.

It may surprise some readers that I was not particularly bothered by Obama’s answers on abortion and stem cell research since I’ve been a vocal opponent of both. Life is certainly more precious to me now than ever in light of my son’s death earlier this year. However, like other evangelicals and post-evangelicals, I’m much less likely to base my vote on these issues than I might have been in previous elections. 

The reasons are myriad, but I’ll start with this: there are moments when I feel like a statistic—just another mother of a young, black man who died a tragic, senseless death in the context of a racialized society. Whether I look at his death from a psycho-social perspective or a purely medical one, issues that relate to the quality of life for African Americans are viscerally important to me in this election cycle.

Given my interview focus for this event, I was struck by the disconnect between the predominantly white evangelical audience’s responses and the concerns of their African American brethren, which, in my interviews, centered on the economy and health care. Jobs and good health go together, in case anyone was wondering.

I wish I could write about a particular health insurance nightmare that my family is currently dealing with, but I am not at liberty to do so. The situation is akin to one I blogged about some time ago in regard to a black mother whose teenage son had died from a heart defect. The boy’s brother had the same defect and had already suffered two heart attacks. He could not work and thus could not afford the medication that would keep him alive. He had been repeatedly turned down for Social Security benefits. This situation is unconscionable. It’s also a pro-life issue that hits me where I live.

I’ve wanted to publicly say for a long time that my goal as a pro-life writer is less about legislation and more about letting women know that having their baby will not ruin their life; doing so will enrich life in challenging, wonderful ways. I believe this more now than ever. I have often wondered why we get so upset about the fate of embryos if we really believe their souls, if they have them, go to be with God. My concern in regard to hESC research has, for some time, centered on who we are as human beings and as a society when we view life, even nascient life, as disposable. These issues are, of course, important matters of law about which I come firmly down on the pro-life side. I just no longer buy the argument that this should be the foundational issue upon which one should base their vote.

As an opponent of hESC research and as a patient advocate, I object to science being pursued and politicized because of the abortion debate. Both candidates were wrong on this issue Saturday night. As I reported here in March, hESC researchers themselves are beginning to declare hESCs a dead end in terms of cures. Why then the excessive investment of limited resources? Why is this still even a question worthy of presidential debate? How about instead asking if the candidates favor regulation of the IVF industry? Even some hESC researchers and IVF doctors are asking for this.

Warren asked two unique questions in my view, the one about making adoption easier and the one about human trafficking. I was glad to hear Obama commit to making adoption easier, particularly if it prioritizes children lingering in foster care here in the United States.

On the human trafficking question, I’m a bit more cynical. As a person acquainted with a SoCal mega-church culture that covers up the sexual abuse of minors and punishes those who speak out, this topic sounds like a feel good way to oppose something far away. Sex slaves in Asia. It costs little for the average American to oppose that from an armchair in suburbia. Not so easy to turn in Uncle Ted when he’s providing financial support to a struggling single parent family, or to risk one’s livelihood when Uncle Ted is a well-connected pastor. If I’ve learned three things about sexual abuse of minors when it’s up close and personal, they are 1) people generally won’t talk, 2) when they do, they will be socially punished, and 3) perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. I wonder, also, how many Orange County evangelicals include in their definition of victims of human trafficking, the undocumented migrants who’ve unwittingly sold themselves into slavery to get across the Mexican/US border? 

As to the question of evil, I found both men’s answers frightening for reasons articulated well by Crunchy Con columnist Rod Dreher. Earlier today, he wrote:

Obama’s nuance, it seems to me, is another word for vagueness. Quinn, a liberal, thinks Obama’s taking a pass on answering Warren’s query about when an unborn child (or, if you prefer, the fetus) acquires human rights is a sign of a supple mind. In fact, by refusing to explain his views, Obama was either being purely political, or revealing that he is not a careful or inquisitive thinker about one of the most critical moral and political issues of our time. “Above my pay grade” is a pure dodge. There is a pro-choice answer to that question, one that I happen to disagree with, but that’s at least philosophically valid. Obama chose not to give it. Why? And why is it considered intellectually respectable by the likes of Quinn that Obama declined to give a straight answer to this question? There is a certain kind of intellectual that sees muddleheadedness as a virtue. It’s the classic liberal weakness: to find, or to seem to find, reasons to excuse evil, or to avoid a confrontation for disreputable reasons.

On the other hand, Kristol views McCain’s utter clarity as a sign of virtue. How anybody can emerge from the Bush years and the Iraq experience with the same Manichaean view of the world and America’s role in it is flabbergasting. But there it is. If Obama was too abstracted — and he was — then McCain was too concrete, and his concreteness was itself a form of ideological abstraction. In other words, by seeming to refuse to recognize complexity in the world and the tragic sense at work in our affairs, McCain evidences living in a world of unreality as well.

Nevertheless, as a political matter, McCain’s approach plays much better with Americans. We like a good story, and we like to understand complex matters of morality and policy in terms of story. When Obama made the perfectly reasonable and necessary point that we have inadvertently done evil in the name of good, he should have brought up Abu Ghraib and torture as examples. He should also have spoken of the unplanned and inadvertent evil of getting our soldiers bound up in wars that seemingly have no end, for no compelling national interest. He might have spoken about how our good intentions about expanding home ownership to more Americans led us to foolishly overextend our financial system.

There are many stories Obama could have told about the cost of imprudence, and he could have — and should have — planted doubts among voters about where the high-minded, crusading verities regarding the nature of Evil and the proper response to it has gotten the country. But he missed that opportunity.

Well those are my thoughts about the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. Whoops. I forgot to mention gay marriage and the war. Tough issues about which I’ll take a pass for now. Last point: I was glad to hear both men prioritize the energy crisis. As to whether or not journalists should be worried that Warren is going to put them out of a job, I do believe the whole “Cone of Silence” non-debacle speaks for itself, in both substance and silliness.

Goodnight Saddleback

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s Gary Bauer selling John McCain. He thinks Obama’s in trouble.

 

Here’s Joshua DuBois, National Director of Religious Affairs for the Obama campaign. He seemed less than thrilled when I asked him if he was disappointed that Warren didn’t ask a question about race relations. He thinks his guy “knocked it out of the ballpark” by talking about his personal faith, health care, the energy crisis, etc. It was a mantra he repeated to several reporters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s Cynthia McFadden of Nightline wrapping interviews after the event. The gentleman in blue is one of the attendees that I spoke with, Hayward Cheesebourough. I’m going to follow up with him and others later this week, and perhaps again as November approaches.

 

My only look at the inner sanctum. The tent was fun, though, especially talking with a French reporter who’s been in the US 50 years, but only became a citizen a few years back. She thinks socialism ruined France. Says she’s going back if the socialists take over here. Huh?

I did manage to find an African American McCain supporter, the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson. Reverend Jesse was undecided before tonight, but was so impressed with McCain that he’s ready to put a campaign sign on his lawn. Peterson was also the only non-campaign operative I saw pursuing multiple interviews.  

I didn’t snap a photo of Brian and Lauren. They’re a couple of kids who watched from tent #3. Brian is black and Lauren is a toe-headed blonde. They looked to be about 12, but said they are old enough to vote in this presidential election. Both thought Obama was the more personable of the candidates. Lauren seemed reluctant to express her opinion about McCain in front of Brian. He wasn’t the least bit shy about expressing his. I wonder about that. In the end they agreed that McCain sounded like a grandpa telling stories. And people say youth is wasted on the young.

‘Night all.

 

Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency 5pm

 

  

The most surprising moment of the day so far … a room full of journalists not only standing up to sing the national anthem, but continuing to sing when the audio went down … except for a few, like the shaggy-haired guy from CNN, and me. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I alternately stood and sat, but didn’t sing.

Another interesting moment … a BBC reporter eloquently taping this bit: “With helicopters overhead and sharp shooters prowling the roof of this multimillion dollar mega-church in Southern California …” Only, I didn’t see any sharp shooters. Maybe I misheard.

Other outlets relegated to the tent:

NewsJoy

High Desert Gospel News

Working Nurse Magazine

California Crusader

Precious Times Magazine

Scholastic News (Kid Reporter)

Hanin News

Not, however, Candy Crowley. She went in, but was as gracious as could be when I talked with her and took this hideous photo.

 

I spoke with about a dozen African Americans, most of whom are Obama supporters. Not one confessing McCain supporter in the bunch. Also ran into Miles McPherson. This San Diego mega-church pastor didn’t say who he’s supporting. We got to talking about people we both know here in SoCal, like my sister-in-law’s brother, Todd Durkin. Todd was my mother’s paperboy back in New Jersey. Now he is a personal trainer for athletes like San Diego Charger LaDainian Thomlinson.

I also did not speak to one person who paid for a ticket. One attendee said 200-250 tickets were sold to offset costs and that the majority of seats went to church volunteers.

More later …

Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency 10 am

 

 

In a few hours, I’ll be glad I got here so early. Right now, I’m glad I brought a couple books:

Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D. and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. Research for another project.

Tommorrow …

I’ll be one of hundreds of reporters descending on Saddleback Church for Rick Warren’s Civil Forum on the Presidency, starring Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. I’m hoping to run into Maureen Dowd, only I’m pretty sure she’ll be in the auditorium and I’ll be watching remotely from the “media filing tent.”

The “D” list journalists and I will be camping outside while a pastor conducts the interviews. Not even Dowd is allowed to ask a question. I was going to say that if these guys had crossed paths with some of the pastors I’ve known, they’d stick with journalists, but then the names Wright and Hagee popped into my head. Proof positive they’re smart enough, or, at least, savvy enough, to lead.

At any rate, let’s hope my sojourn on the “Z” list turns out to be as lucrative as Kathy Griffin‘s exploits. I could do with a little less reality though, which is why I’ll be live-blogging the event in the spirit of CNN’s Jeannie Moos. You know Jeannie Moos. She reports on obscure oddities from the underbelly of life. Expect nothing.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get something worthy of writing about for UrbanFaith.com. I’m not optimistic. I’ll be relegated to the hinterland, after all, and UrbanFaith.com isn’t even online yet. I’ve not been to Saddleback before, however, and couldn’t pass up the possibility of setting eyes and ears on the next president. If not him, then at least Dowd, the wench.

That was a joke, by the way. An ode to Dowd, the columnist men love to hate and women secretly envy.

Cheers to hESCs@CHOC

It’s been many, many years since I’ve sipped a cocktail like the one above, but this was the celebratory drink ordered for us by I don’t know whom on the last night of the NIH hESC training course. The tray of drinks reminded me of a plate of cell cultures so I snapped a photo. It was a fun evening and by the time it arrived, the scientists were generally at ease with this “religious woman.” I really liked them, as was the case last time I attended.

Two interesting conversations stuck with me from the final evening. First, a Brazilian woman asked me if I’m able to separate my personal beliefs about hESC research from my reporting. It’s a fair question, but one nobody asked of Gary Robbins … and he wasn’t shy about sharing his beliefs, religious or otherwise.

Every day of the week, journalists must set aside their personal convictions and report the news. Non-journalists sometimes think this doesn’t happen; they see bias everywhere. In fact, my first introduction to the notion of postmodernism came not from any discussion of pop-philosophy, but from the Walter Lippman classic Public Opinion. In it, one of the founding editors of The New Republic argued that we all see life through the limiting lens of culture and language. The best we can strive for is fairness. Read Lippman’s Wikipedia bio; it provides a compelling look at the interplay of democracy, philosophy and the news.

Gary reports differently about hESC research than I would, but not only because we have different beliefs about the ethics of this work. He is under daily news deadline pressure and I’m an occasional, long form writer with a bent for investigation. I look for what’s not being said or reported. In this case, what’s not being reported with any regularity or conviction in major news outlets is that hESCs are not likely to be the great therapeutic hope they have been pumped up to be.

This is not my opinion, but the somewhat reluctant opinion elicited from 10 prominent scientists who were asked some challenging questions at yesterday’s concluding symposium. The first question was: What are the long-term cancer risks of hESC therapies? Jeanne Loring, whose extensive credentials include work on the Human Genome Project and collaboration on the WARF patent challenge, did not let any of her peers off the hook as moderator of the Q&A. One by one the Oxford guy, the Stem Cell Inc. guy, the Stanford guy et. al. admitted that they have no idea and no answer for this concern.

That’s big news in and of itself, but not for this venue. …

The other significant conversation I had on our final evening together was with the scientist who asked me about The Secret. She did foundational work in the hESC field … as a born-again Christian. The work kept her out of church for ten years, until one day she was looking at hESCs differentiating into various cell types under her microscope. They reminded her of the human race in all its diverse beauty. She imagined God looking down upon humanity through his lens and desiring us to sing hymns and praise songs to him in unison (hESCs have a biological imperative to congregate). She decided it was time to go back to church.

This gracious Christian who was admired by everyone shared her story freely. However … however. She is still not entirely comfortable with her hESC work … and she won’t be telling her story on the record any time soon.

There is much, much more that can be said about the past ten days, but I came away from them with three strong convictions:

  1. Nearly as important as the ethics of hESC research is the lack of regulation in the IVF industry. The United States is far behind many European nations in its concern for 1) the well-being of women receiving IVF therapies, 2) children born of egg/sperm donation and multiple births, and 3) both the exploitation of egg donors and the fate of their eggs.
  2. The best hope for therapeutic uses of stem cells lies in iPSCs that originate in one’s own body. Not only do potential hESC therapies pose significant risks, but adult stem cell therapies from donor sources do as well. Arlene Chiu asked the representative from Stem Cell Inc. if the stem cells in their inaugural FDA-approved human trial had been tested for diseases like neurofibromatosis (NF). Chiu had heard a talk by an NF1 researcher who found that neural stem cells transplanted into a mouse brain resulted in a proliferation of NF tumors in the brain. The Stem Cell Inc. representative said that some screening had taken place, but it was not comprehensive. Chiu was incredulous.
  3. The hype over hESCs has done considerable harm. During the panel discussion, the eminent panelists were confronted by an Autism advocate who wanted to know what can be done about desperate parents taking their sick children outside the United States for non-FDA approved stem cell treatments. One MD commiserated with the woman’s experience, saying it mirrored his own; another panelist noted that a scientist who had investigated charges against a Chinese clinic had been subjected to an “investigative review” of his own by the scientist whose advertised results he found spurious. No suggestions were offered … nor was any responsibility taken for pumping hESC research up and selling it as THE great hope for all manner of human suffering.

UPDATE 3/19: Clarification on this post.

Monday Notes on hESCs@CHOC

 

 

Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at UC San Diego, spoke this morning about hESC ethics. His was a probing Q&A format as he tried to get the scientists to think through the pertinent issues. They didn’t say much, but I believe his questions got them thinking. The discussion wasn’t really an “Is hESC research right or wrong?” discussion, but one about reasoning out inconsistencies in logic. It was a fair discussion, except that he said the opposition equates leftover IVF embryos with live children. I’m not sure that’s accurate. Of more concern to me than the fate of a finite number of leftover IVF embryos is who we become as a society if we don’t do the hard work of thoroughly hashing out the ethics. This is where religious voices are vital to the discussion. Unlike Sidney Golub who said he doesn’t like slippery slope arguments, Kalichman gave weight to concerns about where hESC research might lead. I think it is fair to say that proponents invoke their own brand of slippery slopism when they resist all constraints, regulations and/or oversight.

I won’t say much more about Kalichman’s lecture here, except that the ethics discussion once again appears to have progressed in both tone and content. Early in the talk, he warned that what happened in Korea could happen here and he advised the budding hESC researchers to abide by whatever rules govern their work.

Three important points:

  1. In light of advances with iPSCs (induced pluripotent [adult] stem cells), he thinks it is not unreasonable for ethics committees to require that research proposals include a defense of the use of hESCs over iPSCs.
  2. It is too early to conclude that hESCs and iPSCs will be therapeutically interchangable; therefore all types of stem cell research should proceed.
  3. As a proponent of hESC research, he advised students to treat human embryos with respect because they are more than ordinary cells.

A discussion comparing the ethical constraints on hESC researchers to those on journalists ensued. It was kind of funny, as I realized that journalists may be less popular than hESC researchers. Many hESC researchers are interested in curing disease after all … as are many journalists, only our work is focused on curing (or, at least exposing for treatment) societal ills rather than physical ones.

Kalichman mentioned something about journalists not identifying themselves appropriately. This got me thinking more about blogging conferences. I don’t believe it is my responsibility to tell each lecturer at a public or semi-public event that I will be blogging their session from a particular point of view. They should assume that a lecture (especially one sponsored by the National Institutes of Health) delivered to an undefined audience is fair game to be reported on. As a courtesy, a conference host might wish to alert speakers to the presence of media, but I don’t believe it is required of them either. Additionally, in this situation, I introduced myself to the students as a journalist on day one. I have not named any of them, and will not in this or any other venue without their permission. If I request any formal interviews, only then will I discuss with sources the parameters and possible consequences of an interview.

Two side notes:

  1. This morning, I also attended a lecture on Aneuploidies (chromosomal abnormalities) in hESC culture. The significant development from 3 years ago is that there appear to be two types of aneuploidy: one potentially carcinogenic and one that may be a normal and harmless feature of stem cell culture.
  2. Speaking of new developments, I heard on Friday that Hans Keirstead’s technique for culturing highly undifferentiated oligodendrocytes has been replicated. I’ll have to check into it.
[photo hESC cultures, ©cas 2008, Orange, CA]

Friday Fun with Religion, Science and the Press

Friday, March 7, 2008

ACT I:

12:00 pm, directly after a Psychiatry & Spirituality Forum lecture to psychiatric residents at UC Irvine

(Paraphrasing)

Senior Staff Doctor: “Hello”

Christine: “Hi, I’m Christine. I’m a journalist. I’m doing a story on the Forum for xyz news outlet.

Senior Staff Doctor: “Every time I talk to a reporter, I come out sounding like an idiot. …”

Christine: “Sometimes it’s not the reporter’s fault. It’s those word counts. You have to talk in sound bites.”

Dr. Kheriaty agrees, kibitzing follows.

Senior Staff Doctor to Dr. Kheriaty: “That reporter from wxt news outlet called. She wanted to know if you are some kind of religious zealot. I told her you aren’t, but you know, you ought to have my Native American friend speak. He really helped us get through a contentious work situation.”

Dr. Kheriaty: “We try to be imperically-based and inclusive …”

ACT II:

5:45 pm, CHOC Boardroom, before NIH Embryonic Stem Cell Training Course students arrive for lecture and dinner

(paraphrasing)

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “Hello”

Christine: “Hello”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “Are you a student?”

Christine: “No, I’m a journalist.”
Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “A journalist? From what publication?”

Christine: “I’m pitching a story to xyz news outlet. It’s non-sectarian.”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “It’s not Catholic is it?”
Christine: “No, but I’ve written from that perspective before. I’m not doing that this time. People should be able to disagree and still be respectful though, don’t you think?”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “I don’t know. I’m glad I asked.”

Christine: “Why, will you say something different in your lecture because I’m here?”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher (direct quote): “No, but the Catholics. I’ll be honest. I despise them.”

Christine: stunned silence

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher (paraphrasing): “The bishop of tzv came down to mwl saying he’s against IVF, ruining a lot of people’s happiness.”

Christine (to herself): “Nice to meet you too.”

[photo ©cas 2008, CHOC North Boardroom, Orange, CA ]

hESCs@CHOC 2

Day 2 of the NIH hESC Training Course was fascinating. This year, I’m not hanging with the scientists 10 hours-a-day, but am only attending lectures that might address advances or new challenges in the field. Once again, I’m struck by the chastened tone, not only of the students, but of the speakers. Phil Schwartz set the tone on day one when he showed a series of slides spanning the gestation of a human fetus from embryo to birth.

In the morning, Dr. Thom Nass from Coastal Fertility Medical Center spoke about invitro fertilization (IVF). The reason for Dr. Nass’ talk is that hESC lines are generated from leftover IVF embryos. Some things I learned or relearned about IVF:

  • The United States is the “Wild West” when it comes to IVF regulation, and even some professionals aren’t happy with this reality. Dr. Nass, who used the phrase Wild West to describe the situation, would prefer more regulation so that he and his colleagues are not left entirely on their own in advising patients about these complex issues. In contrast, a cell biologist from Estonia would prefer less regulation in his country. Potential egg donors there must be approved by multiple committees before they give up their eggs.
  • This is probably not a bad thing, as the potential for exploitation is integral to this transaction. Nass said egg donors are paid $5000-$6000 per cycle, which includes 5-6 weeks of chemical manipulation of their pituitary function. I can’t recall the colorful analogy he made to the extreme version of PMS that women experience with treatment, but the point is that chemically manipulated hormones are no picnic for patients or their families. Some women’s eggs are worth more than others. In Irvine, CA, where Nass practices, there is a large Asian population and he says Asians are much less likely to donate their eggs than other ethnic groups. Thus, Asian women can earn up to $50,000 selling their eggs. A UCLA MD/PhD confirmed this statement.
  • Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) is now standard for sifting out defective embryos. The procedure involves puncturing the embryo and removing a single cell for screening. Nass says concerns about damage to the fetus from this procedure have been found to be without merit. hESC lines theoretically can be generated from this single cell once genetic testing is completed (thus creating yet another non-embryo destroying source of hESCs). I’m unsure if scientists have already done this.
  • Coastal Fertility Medical Center does not do PGD for sex selection, but sex selection is legal in the United States and other labs are willing to do it.
  • Until last year HIV patients could not legally have IVF embryos implanted in California. Nass says disease transfer is not a significant problem. He thought the Americans with Disabilities Act might have contributed to the change in law.
  • Egg freezing techniques continue to improve, but freezing eggs is still a secondary option to embryo freezing at US IVF clinics. In Europe, where restrictions on creating embryos exist are stricter, egg freezing is more common.
  • The vast majority of IVF patients are not interested in donating extra embryos through adoption services like Snowflakes. Nass says this is because most couples don’t want a bunch of their genetic progeny running around out there in the world. I reminded him that this is exactly the reality for egg donors (and sperm donors, for that matter).

In the afternoon, I returned to CHOC to hear Dr. Sidney Golub talk about Stem Cell Policy and Politics. Last time, Dr. Golub’s talk sparked a debate between me and a number of others that ended with one of the instructors in tears, but advising me to continue engaging the issue. I determined to avoid a repeat yesterday. Golub made it easy to do with his more even-handed presentation. (I confirmed this impression with someone who had been present for the other talk.)

I surmise four possible reasons for the change:

  1. The Korean somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning) scandal seems to have softened some of the gung-ho cowboy bravado.
  2. The proven feasibility of creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from adult stem cells.
  3. The embarrassing nature of a particular hESC scientist’s rhetoric.
  4. The strength of opponents’ argument that it is simply wrong to kill and experiment on destroy human embryos for experimentation. This one is not a guess. Golub conceded, with humilty, that this moral claim is a powerful one.

Dr. Golub did not look well, an observation I was not alone in making. I hope he takes care of himself, because he seems to have become a voice of reason in the debate. Here are some noteworthy points:

  • He prefers peer review and regulation to legislation, even, I believe, in regard to California’s controversial Prop 71, which he says New York copied nearly verbatim. He outlined a historical precedent for this approach.
  • England’s system of regulation is a good model; it separates science from political arguments.
  • Various Scientific organizations have come to a consensus on several points:
    • local oversight is preferable to national oversight
    • provenance of cells and tissues (don’t recall what this refers to)
    • altruistic donations of genetic materials (women can sell their eggs to make babies, but not for experimentation)
    • no reproductive cloning or reproducing chimeras
    • new cell lines will be necessary due to genetic instability
    • a national advisory group should be established (this really hasn’t happened, according to Golub)
  • Former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, was “controversial, extravagently bright, unafraid to make enemies.” In contrast, the current chairman, Edmund D. Pellegrino, is widely respected and a devout Catholic. Kass’ council appeared politicized in part because of the removal of two highly qualified hESC advocates, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. William May.
  • According to Golub, patient groups are still the primary proponents of hESC research, though public support runs in the 60% range. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation speaks with the “strongest voice.” Notably, the pharmaceutical lobby has been silent on the issue.
  • Nearly everyone (80-90% of the population) is opposed to reproductive cloning. It is “dangerous and likely to fail.” Therapeutic cloning (SCNT) is another story. Golub supports it for research purposes, but thinks it is highly unlikely to be useful for therapies.
  • Take home lessons: 1.) stem cell policy doesn’t easily accomodate compromise, 2.) legislation struggles to keep pace with science, 3.) US policy is a patchwork of limited federal programs and conflicting state policies + private enterprise, 4.) there is consensus on constitutional oversight, 4.) US science policy from 1945-2000 focused on priorities to be funded in contrast to the current interventionist approach.

During the Q&A, a San Diego cell biologist told the story of going to a Tijuana stem cell clinic with a reporter from the San Diego Union Tribune and described a heartbreaking scene of suffering families being sold a bill of goods in a glossy presentation.

Last evening at dinner, the scientist I mentioned in my previous post asked what “that religious woman” was doing at the course. My presence was once again defended by the host who invited me. In coming days I hope to convince her that I am a person, and not just “that religious woman.” I also hope being viewed as such doesn’t wear me out to the degree it did last time.