Knox United Church brought together the best and brightest from the scientific, philosophical and religious communities to raise awareness about the ethical issues surrounding stem cell research Wed., Nov. 8.
The panel was composed of the head of the University of Calgary department of cell biology and anatomy, Dr. Naweed Syed, chair of the Calgary Health Region and U of C conjoint health research ethics board, Dr. Glenys Godlovitch, and the spiritual leader of the Calgary Reform B'nai Tikivah Temple Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman.
Instead of arguing, each of the panelists supported stem cell research on a scientific , philosophical and religious level.
Syed discussed his ground-breaking research on molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in the formation of brain synapses, noting he grew a network of snail brain cells on a silicon chip and used them to pass signals from a computer chip into a network of brain cells and back to the chip again.
This research was the first neurological animal-computer connection. In addition to regenerating their synaptic connections on the silicon chip, the cells also showed evidence of memory traces successfully read by the chip.
"Once brain cells are damaged they cannot be replaced," said Syed, noting a human bio-hybrid would allow people with lost brain function to regain memory.
Godlovitch discussed the moral implications of stem cell research from a philosophical perspective.
"Stem cell research is not wrong per-se, but we need to shift our focus to the bigger picture," she said.
Godlovitch explained that from a philosophical perspective people must try to embrace the entire human being, including the undefinable, non-tangible element of human life, which some would call a soul.
"Science focuses on little things that fit together and ignores the whole human being," said Godlovitch.
We are stuck in the idea of what can be done, not what should be done, she argued, which raises the question, just because we can do something, should we?
Rabbi Voss-Altman took to the religious side of the debate, but unlike many religious groups, he argued in favour of stem cell research.
"The very fact that Dr. Syed can offer such a beautiful and extensive explanation of the miracles of our brain is the very evidence that we need to further our scientific advancement of our species," said Voss-Altman.
Voss-Altman said the debate is not about stem cells, but is the age-old story of the fanatical religious right opposing science for fear that it will expose unknown truths that challenge their doctrines.
"Our very intellect, given to us by, I believe, a beneficent God, gives the unique and human power to pursue knowledge and create a body of knowledge to create life," said Voss-Altman. "It is the most distinct human thing we do, and therefore the most distinctly human thing God would want us to do."
"Since research into human stem cells partakes of the mitzvah of healing, surely our society ought to support it," he said. "Indeed, our tradition requires that we use all available knowledge to heal the ill."