Letter from the Dean

Dean Philip A. Pizzo, MD

Dean Philip A. Pizzo, M.D. ; Photograph Leslie Williamson

More About Stem Cells

Dear Readers,

In December 2002, we announced the formation of the Stanford Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, the first of several institutes we plan to launch over the next one to two years. The new institute is a direct extension of our strategic plan to translate discoveries to improve the lives of adults and children. In this case we hope to join the fields of cancer and stem cell research to better understand cancer biology and through that to develop new treatments for the disease.

Each of the institutes will represent areas of science and medicine that will benefit from interaction among scientists in disciplines throughout the School of Medicine and university. The goal will be to yield fundamental insights into human illness and to develop new approaches to disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

Although the Stanford Institutes of Medicine will engage a small number of new recruitments, their strength will come from aligning faculty already at Stanford. And while the institutes will initially use space within the medical school's footprint, we envision new facilities to house them along with the basic and clinical departments sustaining them.

The two seemingly disparate fields linked in the Stanford Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine are united by the fact that stem cells and cancer cells share the remarkable ability to divide repeatedly and indefinitely. Studying the process by which stem cells grow and divide provides insight into the biology of malignant cells. This knowledge can help guide approaches to blocking or correcting the abnormalities that occur when a cell transforms from normal to malignant. In addition, stem cells can play a direct role in treating cancer by replacing cells damaged by chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Accordingly, the key immediate goals of the new institute include:

  • Learning as much as possible about the programs of self-renewal in cancer stem cells with the hope of identifying their relationships to known cancer genes as well as discovering new molecular targets for drug or immune therapies.

  • Establishing a program in nuclear reprogramming and nuclear transplantation to produce human pluripotent stem cell lines from cancer stem cell nuclei and from the nuclei of cells from patients with other genetic disorders.

  • Discovering and isolating tissue- and organ-specific stem cells that might be used to regenerate tissues or organs damaged by current cancer therapies.

Indeed as noted in this issue of Stanford Medicine, the announcement of the new institute created quite a stir. Media attention was widespread, placing Stanford at the forefront of this important area of research. Most coverage was positive and ultimately proved to be balanced and fair, but some initial articles included erroneous comments suggesting that we might be embarking on a plan to "clone human embryos," starting coverage off on the wrong foot. Confusion about the meanings of words like "cloning" and "human embryos," especially when linked as they were in the erroneous reports, contributed to misunderstanding among the public.

Unfortunately, we inadvertently fed the confusion by publishing a Q & A on the institute that mistakenly claimed the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics shares our preferred terminology for describing a method we might use to create stem cell lines. The technique, which we refer to as cell nucleus transfer, has also been called biomedical or therapeutic cloning. We prefer the more descriptive term -- as does the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine.

Central to the issue is that the word "cloning" has very different meanings to scientists and the public, which has led to some misunderstanding about the moral and ethical underpinnings of stem cell research. To the scientist, "cloning" in this context simply means creating an identical copy of a cell. But to the public, the word may suggest the creation of new human life in the research laboratory, a practice which the scientists at the institute and Stanford unanimously oppose. Clearly, with the help of those in the media and in the scientific community, we must work to overcome the language and definitional barriers so that all people can understand the scientific progress being made through stem cell research.

I began my career as a pediatric oncologist some three decades ago. At that time, survival of children with cancer was limited. Today because of advances in biomedical research, nearly 80 percent of children survive childhood cancers, but the toll of conventional therapy is enormous. What we need now are more specific and less toxic therapies, which will come through research in the overlapping fields of cancer and stem cell biology.

By forming the new institute, Stanford is leading the way toward a future where children and adults can receive better, more targeted cancer therapies. We also hope advances can be applied to other serious disorders such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and cardiovascular disease. At the same time we will be guided by a team of scientists working with legal experts and ethicists at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics to continue putting respect for patients first and foremost in our mission of advancing knowledge and improving the lives and health of our world community. I welcome input from all who are interested in this important subject as Stanford tries to fight cancer by advancing biomedical research.

Philip Pizzo, MD
Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Professor of Pediatrics and of Microbiology and Immunology
Dean, Stanford University School of Medicine

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