DATE February 14, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Beth Wictum of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at
University of California, Davis, discusses how animal DNA is used
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
How is this for an interesting job, helping to solve crimes using cutting-edge
science and animals? That's kind of a job description of my guest Beth
Wictum. She analyzes animal DNA in cases where an animal has been the victim,
the perpetrator or a witness. OK, the animal can't exactly take the witness
stand, but you can prove that a suspect's clothes had traces of the fur,
saliva or urine of an animal that was at the scene of the crime. Beth Wictum
is the acting director of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University
of California, Davis. It's one of the largest animal DNA typing laboratories
in the world.
I asked Wictum for a favorite crime story her lab helped solved. There has
been so many, she found it hard to choose.
Ms. BETH WICTUM: I think my favorite one, though, was a triple homicide
case, and mostly it was my favorite because we didn't expect to get DNA
results. In this instance, the person who was accused of shooting the three
people claimed he had never gotten out of the vehicle, and they found a shoe
impression in a pile of dog feces. So police submitted a piece of feces about
the size of a pencil eraser that they had gotten from his shoe, and we were
able to match that to a feces at the crime scene and placed him at the crime.
GROSS: That's great. So he was convicted because of the DNA of the feces.
Ms. WICTUM: Well, that was a part of the evidence. In most of the cases,
there's quite a bit of other evidence. You have witness statements,
ballistics, you know, tire treads, the usual forensic evidence. And our DNA
evidence plays a part of the total picture, just like as human DNA evidence
GROSS: The use of DNA in crime solving is pretty new. How did the use of
animal DNA in crime solving get started?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, they went pretty much hand in hand. Along the same time
that DNA test were being developed in humans, our laboratory was also
developing DNA tests in animals for use in verifying bloodlines in animals.
We do a lot of horses, cattle, dogs, cats, llamas.
GROSS: This is for breeders to make sure that...
Ms. WICTUM: Yeah.
GROSS: ...that the breed is...
Ms. WICTUM: Exactly.
Ms. WICTUM: We have contracts, actually, with different breed registries to
do DNA profiling. So we had the marker panels in place. It's just the
ability to take those panels and apply them in a forensic setting. We had a
fair amount of experience with postmortem samples where breeders had neglected
to DNA profile their animal before it died. And so, in order to register the
offspring, we had to get a DNA profile from the dead animal. So they were
sending in all kinds of body parts, and we got pretty good at getting DNA out
of very margin samples.
GROSS: Is it helpful when you want to get DNA, say, at a crime scene, is it
helpful that animals tend to shed and lick and pee a lot?
Ms. WICTUM: It can be. Just like with humans, the best DNA from a hair
sample is going to be if it has a root. But because animals do groom
themselves, particularly dogs and cats, sometimes we will get DNA off hairs
that you would not be able to get DNA from in a human situation. And we get
DNA from a variety of other samples, as well, that they don't see so much in
GROSS: So what is the best material for animal DNA testing? If you had your
choice of what specimen to use, what would it be?
Ms. WICTUM: Probably a hair with a big fat root. That would provide so much
DNA. But those aren't the types of samples we usually get.
GROSS: What do you usually get?
Ms. WICTUM: Again, there's such a variety. With human criminal work, a lot
of time its shed dog or cat hair because it transfers so easily from the
victim to the suspect on their clothing, in their car, so on. If you have a
pet, you know how easily it transfers. And also that's the most marginal type
of evidence, too, like I said, because it doesn't always have roots. But
sometimes you get lucky, and you get a result.
Oftentimes, too, we will get tissue. We are working on one case right now
where there is actual animal parts as an animal abuse case. So unless it has
been left out in the sun for a very long time in warm temperatures, it would
be very good. There would be lots of DNA there and no problem at all in
GROSS: Do you often get calls from the police?
Ms. WICTUM: More and more, we're getting calls from the police. Word is
getting out that we are here, and we're doing this kind of work. A lot of
times, people didn't know that the lab was here but they contact their
veterinarians, their local universities, and we are getting more and more
referrals from people like that.
GROSS: Tell us about a case where you were called in on by a police unit.
Ms. WICTUM: Well, actually, this was one of our earliest cases. This was a
sexual assault on a woman who was working in her yard and a man pulled in in a
pickup truck and was asking for directions, and while he was talking to her,
her dog urinated on his truck tire. And he dragged her into the truck, tried
to sexually assault her, but she fought him off and called the police. And
she was able to describe the truck to the police. But when they had him in a
lineup, she couldn't pick him up. So the police came to us at that time and
asked about doing DNA testing on the urine on the truck tire. So they swabbed
it and sent it in, and we were able to match the DNA from the truck tire to
the victim's dog and again placing him at the crime scene.
GROSS: Truck tires are so filthy that I would have thought that the DNA
evidence from the urine would have been corrupted in some way.
Ms. WICTUM: No, because the primers that we use are species-specific. So as
long as the truck hasn't been sitting out in the rain or in the sun for very
long--the samples were taken within a day or two of the assault--it would be
fine. DNA is a very stable molecule.
GROSS: Can you give us a sense of how long it takes to do a DNA profile and
what that process is like?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, the process is going to vary according to the quality and
quantity of the DNA. If you're dealing with shed hairs, it can be a lot
longer than if you're dealing with a pulled hair with a root. We've had
cattle cases come in in one day and go out the next. But, typically, we say
to allow four to eight weeks for testing. And if you're testing a case, for
example a dog attack case where there's large amounts of clothing that has
blood, it has hair, it has saliva, it has even taken up to three months for
testing in cases like that.
GROSS: And why does it take so long?
Ms. WICTUM: Because there's so much evidence, and you're dealing with
marginal evidence. We had one dog attack case that actually ended up being a
homicide because they took the woman off life support. And in that instance,
we tested her jacket because there was a lot of blood on it, and we could not
get dog DNA. So we actually ended up reading in the newspaper the story of
her assault. And they were told that she was attacked on the right leg. So
then we had to go back. We targeted the right leg and got a DNA profile. And
in that case, the hospital had put the clothing in a plastic bag and left it
at room temperature for a month before we got it. So it was just covered in
mold, and so it was not an optimal evidence to work with.
GROSS: It also sounds really unpleasant.
Ms. WICTUM: There is that aspect, especially when we were doing postmortem
with the horses people would dig up. We would try to get them to just send in
a tooth or two, but a lot of times they wanted to send a whole head or a whole
leg. And, of course, `No, we only need a little bit.'
GROSS: When you say send, exactly how do they send a specimen like a horse
Ms. WICTUM: FedEx.
Ms. WICTUM: Just wrap it up real well, so it doesn't leak.
GROSS: Wow! Do the FedEx people know that?
Ms. WICTUM: I don't think so.
GROSS: OK. And what's a good civil case that you worked on?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, we get a lot of civil cases that are just lost or missing
animals. People want to know if a certain dog killed their cat. We get a lot
of those. Actually, the most interesting ones are usually the ones where they
end up being a surprise. Like, for example, there was one woman whose cat was
killed, and she had seen the neighbor's dog in her yard several times, and
they suspected it was the dog. So we tested it with our typical dog primers
and didn't get results, didn't get results. We thought, `What are we doing
wrong?' So we ended up backtracking and just doing a generic species
identification test, and we came up with bobcat, which completely surprised
GROSS: Did anybody know there were bobcats in the vicinity?
Ms. WICTUM: She didn't. But their property backed up onto a wildlife
GROSS: Wow! So an innocent dog's life was spared.
Ms. WICTUM: In that case, yes. Yes. Our own little Innocence Project.
GROSS: My guest is Beth Wictum. She's the acting director of the Veterinary
Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. We'll talk more
after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Beth Wictum. She's the acting director of the Veterinary
Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. We're talking
about her forensic work using animal DNA to help solve crime.
What's the bread and butter in your lab for animal DNA testing?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, the laboratory itself, like I said, does parentage
testing. We are kind of a subunit of that laboratory that does the forensics.
Bread and butter? Probably the biggest component up until recently was cattle
rustling. We've done quite a few cases from almost every state in the West.
But, again, we are sort of a victim of our own success because now when the
brand inspectors tell the suspects they are going to get DNA testing, they
usually end up working out a plea deal. So we never see the samples anymore.
GROSS: So for cattle rustling, how would that work? What would your role be?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, cattle rustling has been on the rise since we banned
Canadian beef. And the prices for US beef have gone up. And, typically, the
cattle that are rustled are calves that are unbranded. They may be out in the
field standing next to a fence, and they are very portable. Somebody could
just take them up and throw them in the trunk of their car, and they sell for
4 or $500 a piece. So in those sorts of instances, when they get calves where
the brands have been altered or they are unbranded and they don't have the
correct documentation, they'll get suspicious. They'll call the brand
inspector, and they will check with ranches that have lost calves who will
supply DNA from the cows. And then we'll get DNA from the calves and do a
parentage analysis to see if they are indeed the offspring of those cows. And
we can then return them to the ranch from which they were stolen.
GROSS: In the forensic work that your lab does, was there ever any
resistance? Were courts ever reluctant to accept animal DNA as evidence?
Ms. WICTUM: In my experience, they have been very generous in allowing
animal DNA evidence in. I think we've benefitted from the human DNA
challenges that were experienced in the last decade. And so now human DNA is
pretty well-accepted. And we're using the same types of equipment, the same
protocols to do animal DNA testing. So for the most part, it's very
well-accepted. I only know of one case where it was thrown out, and we're not
the laboratory that did the work in that case.
GROSS: Have you ever gotten a call from Scotland Yard?
Ms. WICTUM: Yes, we have. Back in the year 2000 was the first time they
contacted us. In that instance, a bouncer at a club had been stabbed in the
heart, and there was a trail of blood leading away from the crime scene, but
when they tested it, it wasn't human. So that's when they called us up and
asked if we would do the testing. And at first we said no, but eventually
they talked us into it. So they flew over for a week. And actually, in this
instance, the person who had originally contacted us got bumped by his
supervisor, who decided to bring the samples to California for a week. And we
did the testing, and we were able to match the blood on the sidewalks to the
suspect's dog, who apparently during the altercation had gotten his ear nicked
with the knife that was used on the bartender.
GROSS: That's really interesting. You say at first your lab said no to this
request from Scotland Yard. Why?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, at that point, we were just starting to dabble in the
forensics field. It was becoming apparent that there was a need there and we
were getting started but we weren't really set up as a forensic laboratory.
And to deal with somebody like Scotland Yard is pretty intimidating. And--but
there wasn't really anybody at that time that could do the work, so they
talked us into doing it.
GROSS: So how did this case from Scotland Yard change the lab?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, it really validated to us that there was a need for what
we were doing and that it was important work. And to work with somebody like
Scotland Yard, it was great. I mean, there was wonderful people and very
professional, even though they were, like I said, intimidating.
GROSS: You've been called in on a lot of animal abuse cases. What are the
typical cases like?
Ms. WICTUM: There really is no typical case. We've done everything from
testing sticks or weapons up into testing pieces of tissue. For example, one
of our earliest animal abuse cases was what we call the "puppy chopper," where
a man was observed putting unwanted puppies into a chipper-shredder. And the
mother ran off with one of the puppies, and we were able to take tissue from
the chipper-shredder and match it to the mother to show that it was an
offspring of hers. And in that case, the man got a couple of years in jail.
But the good thing is, in that case, the good part of it was the mother and
her puppy became poster dogs animal abuse. And they were adopted by the
veterinarian that was working on that case.
GROSS: What a horrible story!
Ms. WICTUM: Sorry. A lot of the animal abuse cases are. We have another
animal abuse case that was really interesting because in that instance, there
was a case of serial abuse, where they started out shooting hamsters, putting
them in a pillow case, having a fight with them. Then they escalated up to
shooting a bull with some razor arrows. They killed a goat with a machete.
And then they attacked some llamas with a meat cleaver. And then, finally,
they attacked a llama and killed it with broken off golf clubs. And in that
instance, we showed that the suspect had llama blood on his shirt, and they
went to jail. But I'm particularly proud of that case because you could see
the escalation, and an FBI profiler said this was the kind of person that
would go on to eventually become a serial killer and attack humans, which,
indeed, when he was in prison, he talked about going on and killing orangutans
and apes at Butchart Gardens.
GROSS: Wow! This isn't the kind of work that really increases your faith in
human beings, is it?
Ms. WICTUM: Not really. You see a lot of dog attacks, which can be vicious,
especially on young children. But the dogs are acting instinctively. When
you see what people do to animals, that is just pure evil. It's horrendous.
GROSS: Is there a particularly bizarre story you were called in on?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, we've had some bizarre requests. One that leaps to mind
is some hair testing we were asked to verify that the hair came from a Big
Foot. I told them...
Ms. WICTUM: ...I told them that we could only tell them if it didn't come
from a Big Foot since we didn't have a positive Big Foot sample to compare it
GROSS: That's a real flaw in your lab, isn't it, that you don't have one yet.
Ms. WICTUM: Well, we're working on our Big Foot database.
GROSS: Do you have a file of unidentified DNA?
Ms. WICTUM: Well...
GROSS: DNA that doesn't fit into any species that you know of?
Ms. WICTUM: I'm afraid not.
GROSS: Maybe it is a Big Foot.
Ms. WICTUM: No. No. No. There is a genetic repository called GenBank
where DNA sequences are uploaded. So that's the first place you go to compare
DNA sequences. And if it doesn't match anything in there, then it probably
GROSS: What got you into this work in the first place and what did you expect
you'd be doing with the knowledge that you had?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, I never thought I'd end up here. I was a zoology major,
and I went to work at the laboratory doing blood typing. And then as we
started the DNA testing, I became very involved with that and developed a lot
of the tests that we're using now. And when the forensics unit was started, I
was asked to head up. And so I had to learn forensics as I went. And so it's
been interesting. It's been a real education. And, like I said, we're always
learning something new.
GROSS: Do you have pets?
Ms. WICTUM: Yes, I do.
GROSS: And what do you have?
Ms. WICTUM: I have a dog. And he's actually our positive control for the
GROSS: What does that mean?
Ms. WICTUM: Well, every time you run a sample, you have to run positive
controls, which is a known, and negative controls to make sure that there
isn't contamination. So he is our known sample that we run with every dog
GROSS: I bet he'd be very proud if he knew that.
So what did you get, good dog hairs with a root on them?
Ms. WICTUM: Actually, we do the same thing they do in the human world, which
is we use what's called a buccal or a buccal swab. And it's just a swab on
the end of a stick that you run in the suspect's mouth and collect epithelial
cells from the inside of the mouth, because DNA is DNA, and some people don't
realize the DNA from your hair is going to be the same in your mouth, from
GROSS: So just curious, like with your dog, when you did the DNA testing, did
you learn anything about your--your dog's breeding or heritage that was
interesting to you that you didn't know before?
Ms. WICTUM: Not--well, I learned he's not wolf. But...
GROSS: Did you think he was?
Ms. WICTUM: There was some question. I think he's part Husky and so he's
got that wolf look. And we didn't know where he came from. So we were able
to eliminate the wolf and just show that he was dog. That's what every
laboratory would like to do is to develop a test that shows breed. And right
now, there isn't any reliable test because most dog breeds have evolved just
within the last few hundred years so they're not that genetically different.
Between a Chihuahua and a Doberman, there's not that much difference.
GROSS: Is there any reason why all of us who have pets should go out and get
DNA specimens? Or is that kind of pointless exercise unless there's a good
reason for it?
Ms. WICTUM: It doesn't take any effort to collect a DNA sample. And I
always recommend people do it. You can just pull some hairs that have good
roots. If it's a animal like a dog that typically sheds a lot, you can just
get a cotton-tipped applicator, run it around their mouth about 10 times and
collect cells. Just let it air dry, put it in a paper envelope, don't put it
in a baggy, and stick it in a drawer, and it will be good for years and years
and years. So if there's ever a question about your animal being stolen, you
can always pull out a sample and have a known sample to compare it to.
GROSS: Well, I never would have thought of doing that. Putting a swab in an
envelope and keeping it there for years just in case. That's really
interesting. Do you think more and more people are doing that now?
Ms. WICTUM: I hope so. It makes our job a lot easier.
GROSS: Would it?
Ms. WICTUM: Oh, absolutely. Instead of trying to get little pieces of hair
or feces from the home, we could actually just test the swab and have a good
DNA profile the first go around.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us about your work. I really
Ms. WICTUM: My pleasure.
GROSS: Beth Wictum is the acting director of the Veterinary Genetics
Laboratory at the University of California, Davis.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Christopher Scott, executive director of Stanford
University's Center for Biomedical Ethics' program in stem cells
and society, discusses stem cell research
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Philosopher, theologian, medical ethicists and politicians are wrestling with
the questions surrounding embryonic stem cell research. The new book, "Stem
Cell Now," addresses many of these questions and explains the science of stem
cell research and what the research may be able to achieve. My guest is the
author Christopher Thomas Scott. He's the director of the program on stem
cells and society at Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics.
Here's how the National Institutes of Health describes human embryonic stem
cells. Quote, "Stem cells are cells that have the remarkable potential to
develop into many different cell types in the body. Serving as a sort of
repair system for the body, they could theoretically divide without limit to
replenish other cells for as long as the person or animal is still alive.
When a stem cell divides, each daughter cell has the potential to either
remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized
function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell or a brain cell," unquote.
But as Scott explains, not all stem cells are embryonic.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER THOMAS SCOTT (Executive Director, Stanford University Center
for Biomedical Ethics Program): Stem cells come in two varieties, two basic
varieties. One is the embryonic stem cell, the most powerful stem cell.
Those come from early human embryos. The second variety are called adult stem
cells. Those actually appear during fetal development, so adult isn't quite
the right term for them, but they persist throughout adulthood, and that's why
they're called adult stem cells. Adult stem cells are not as powerful as
embryonic stem cells. And the two are very closely related because they have
GROSS: And what are the similarities and differences?
Mr. SCOTT: The similarities between embryonic and adult stem cells is that
they both make more of themselves. It's a behavior called self-renewal, so
adult stem cells make more stem cells, and so the embryonic stem cells. So
they're in essence immortal. The differences between adult and embryonic stem
cells is that embryonic stem cells can make any of the 200 cells in the body.
It's a process called differentiation. And adult stem cells, because they're
developmentally older, are more restricted in what they can become. So a stem
cell in the blood, for example, can make any of the nine different kinds of
blood cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
GROSS: Now you said in your book that the reality of stem cell biology is
overshadowed by the hype. What do you mean?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, embryonic stem cell biology and regular adult stem cell
biology are two parts of a very important discipline in sciences. And I
believe that embryonic stem cell research is just one part of a larger
picture. And because human embryos are used for embryonic stem cell research,
that particular fact has been part of a very vigorous and acrimonious at times
debate about whether we should be using early, early forms of life for
scientific research. And that part of the debate, often the shouting that
goes on in that debate, often eclipses some of the other very important
results that are coming from the adult stem cell field. And it's important to
note that embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells are of close relations.
They're part of a large family of cells that exist. And without understanding
embryonic stem cells, a lot of the important information about adult stem
cells is lost. In fact, Liz Blackburn, who works at the University of
California, San Francisco, she was also in the president's commission for
bioethics, said that one can't find answers to questions about apples by doing
research on oranges, but you can learn about fruit in general. But the
nuances of disease are very, very specific. And that's a very telling
statement because if embryonic stem cell research is prohibited, as it is
effectively in the United States, the adult stem cell knowledge that we can
gain from understanding the family in general is also slowed.
GROSS: Well, that's a kind of Catch-22 because the president, for instance,
would like scientists to pursue adult stem cell research and just do very,
very limited embryonic stem cell research.
Mr. SCOTT: Right. It is a Catch-22, and it's a little bit like learning
something about your significant other, I suppose, by finally meeting the
in-laws. If you see that the father is drinking milk right out of the carton
from the refrigerator, it makes a lot of sense that you'd see it actually in
your mate, too. So learning about adult stem cell research, those insights,
many of them will come from the embryonic stem cell field.
GROSS: What's the difference between the potential of the two or how they
behave? I mean, if adult stem cells were easy to work with, then it would be
no problem to abandon embryonic stem cell research and just focus on adult
Mr. SCOTT: Adult stem cells have a few finicky behaviors that make them very
difficult to work with. One is that they are rare, so it's hard to find them
in the body. The second thing is, once you've found them, they're devilishly
hard to cultivate in the laboratory. And the promise behind embryonic stem
cell research is that embryonic stem cells make adult stem cells. So they're
the early ancestors of adult stem cells. So knowing how to actually create
adult stem cells from embryonic stem cells can kind of solve the problem of
lack of numbers.
GROSS: What are your hopes for what scientists will eventually be able to do
therapeutically with stem cell research?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, the good news is that adult stem cells are already used in
therapies. Cord blood is another area of interest for clinicians. Cord
blood, taken from the umbilical cord of babies, are very powerful. They are
used to cure some cancers in children, especially cancers of the blood and
some genetic diseases. So there's a lot of very promising research in the
cord blood area, too. And then there are a bunch of clinical trials going on
right now using stem cells that are found in the joints of our knees, and
there are also blood stem cells being injected into the heart. Those trials
are rather controversial at the moment and just beginning.
GROSS: What are some of the diseases that you think are most likely to be
treatable at some point in the not-too-distant-future with stem cells?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, I think the far future, whether we actually use embryonic
stem cells to create organs, is many, many, many decades out. The near future
will be inroads into therapies for--I would say, diabetes is a very fertile
area of research. There are trials now starting for spinal cord injuries
using derivatives of embryonic stem cells. Certainly some of the most
interesting work will actually be using embryonic stem cells and stem cells as
tools to discover drugs or to understand how disease progresses. The nice
thing about using human stem cells in the laboratory is that they can mimic a
disease, a much easier way of studying a disease than studying it in patients
who suffered from it.
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Thomas Scott. His new book is called "Stem
Cell Now." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Thomas Scott. He's the author of the new book
"Stem Cell Now." And he's the executive director of the stem cell and society
program at the Biomedical Ethics program at Stanford University.
The president has restricted federal funding for stem cell research. Only
certain lines of stem cells are allowed to be funded. And before we go any
further into that, just give us the basic refresher course and what that
Mr. SCOTT: An embryonic stem cell line is a immortal line of cells that is
grown in a laboratory. Those cells come from the four to six day old human
embryo. So that's what an embryonic stem cell line is. Before President Bush
issued his proclamation in August 2001 saying that the government would
restrict research on embryonic stem cell lines, there existed, by some
accounts, about 70 lines worldwide that had already been created in embryonic
stem cell laboratory. Since that time, those 70 lines have dwindled to about
10 to 20. The 10 to 20 lines that are now on the registry that are usable are
good for research purposes, but none of those lines are usable for therapies.
So since 2001, researchers in the United States cannot use government funds to
work on embryonic stem cell lines, create new ones. Now private money can be
used to work on new lines that are created in the United States, and
government money can be used on these 10 to 20 lines that are usable on the
GROSS: Why is federal funding so important? I mean, it's not like stem cell
research is illegal. It's just that you can't use federal funding for most of
it. So what's the importance of the federal funding?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, federal funding is the thing that drives most biomedical
research in the United States. The NIH, for example, the biggest funding
agency pumps in about $27 billion every year into biomedical research. So it
is a big source of money that propels the basic science of United States. And
without that resource, the research quite simply goes more slowly. And there
have been some that say, `Well, you know, this money can come from other
sources, foundations, private individuals.' Well, I don't know many
organizations or individuals that have pocketbooks like $27 billion. So the
result really is that much embryonic stem cell research, the new results are
coming from other countries such as Singapore, England, Australia, Israel,
where embryonic stem cell research is permitted.
GROSS: What impact is that having on science in the United States?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, there are a couple of things that come to mind. One is
that the United States is accustomed simply to being in the lead in this area,
and the fact that we now lag by some measures is disconcerting to the
biomedical community, to patients who are looking for cures and to generally
the, kind of, the stem cell biologists who work on this. The second thing,
the more troublesome thing I think is that it has created an environment in
the United States where young scientists may be choosing other careers. Now I
don't have any hard evidence for this. This is anecdotal, what I can
determine from talking to people in laboratories nationwide. And that's that
when the young investigators choose a career, they choose a career based on
how well that career might be funded from all sources including the
government. And if they look at their possibilities for becoming professors,
assistant professors, associate professors and full professors over their
career and see that the government hasn't been excited about funding the
research that interests them, they'll pick another career. And what happens
with that is once those young scientists pick different careers, you create a
knowledge gap inside the American academic system. And with that knowledge
gap, you lose a bunch of things. You lose the ability to train new students,
you lose the ability to bring therapies to patients quickly, you lose an
institutional or maybe a scientific memory about this very important area of
science. And that knowledge then goes to other countries.
GROSS: There's a few states that are trying to make themselves centers of
embryonic stem cell research. By doing what?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, in California, they passed a Proposition 71 which was a
bond measure to fund stem cell research of all types, not just embryonic stem
cell research for the next 10 years. It's a $3 billion initiative that still
has yet to take effect. Other states are jumping on that bandwagon, passing
measures to fund research through state funding mechanisms. And then there
are other places where money can come from, the large philanthropic
organizations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation, the Stowers
Institute and others have stepped up and funded stem cell research in the tens
and twenties of millions of dollars level.
GROSS: How effective do you think they'll be in compensating for the money
that isn't coming from the federal government?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, I don't think it's going to be very effective. It
certainly is a start. And tens of millions of dollars here and there is
better than nothing, for sure. But until we get a national policy that puts
us right at the front of what we should be doing in biomedical research, I'm
afraid that America will be looking to other shores for the new discoveries
and perhaps the new therapies. I think that would be a terrible thing to
actually have American patients that are suffering from disease have to travel
overseas to get their therapies because we couldn't do it here first.
GROSS: You studied the social and ethical implications of stem cell research.
So how do you go about trying to think through the issue of the ethics of
embryonic stem cell research? Where do you begin?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, I begin with the embryo. That is the subject of all the
debate, about whether we should be using embryos to derive embryonic stem cell
lines or leaving those embryos alone. Those are the two questions. And when
I think about use of the embryo as a very early form of human life, it helps
me to reason through what that early form of human life is about, from both a
biological perspective and also from a moral perspective, how I feel about it.
What my values are about that embryo. And this is a personal choice and a
personal decision of mine that I believe that an embryo at the four to six day
stage is not a human being, it's not capable of suffering, either experiencing
joy or pain. It is something that we should hold in high regard and in that
respect shouldn't be used in a capricious manner. On the other hand, I'm very
sure of what I see when I see someone suffering from diabetes or someone who
is paralyzed because of an injury, an automobile injury. And I know for
certain when I see patients in the hospital near where I work that those folks
are indeed people and they indeed are suffering and their families suffer.
And that as someone as part of the biomedical community, a community of
scientists who are studying these amazing cells, that it is a duty, really an
obligation, of mine and other people who work in the field agree with me, to
try to use these cells to help that suffering and help those people who are
injured. So it really comes down to the definition for individuals that are
looking at this in terms of how they feel about the embryo as a form of human
life. I feel the embryo ought to be used for biomedical research. There are
others, many on the religious right, who feel that the embryo is sacrosanct
and should be just left alone.
GROSS: President Bush appointed a commission on bioethics, and the commission
has advised him on stem cell research. But that commission has proved to be
pretty controversial. For what reason?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, the commission issued a series of reports that basically
underscored the party line, the Bush administration party line. And the
controversy really surrounds how the members of the commission were appointed.
Now presidents can appoint executive commissions like this in any way they
choose, but in this particular case, the commission was seen to be very much
on the neoconservative right. Those members were known by their own
publications and writing to be in opposition to working with embryos, in vitro
fertilization, anti-abortion, were among the stated positions that they had.
And so as a result, it was no surprise to see that the commission's findings
were very much in line with their earlier thinking. Now commissions in the
past, presidential commissions on ethics in the past, in my view, have been
more balanced. And as a result, the policy that has come out of those
commissions is more balanced. One example of that is the towering Belmont
Report, which is a legal document that tells us how we should treat patients
in biomedical research. So I think history will look back on this
presidential commission and perhaps judge it against some of the others in
terms of how effective it was and how pluralistic it was in terms of setting
this very important policy for America.
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Scott. He's the author of the new book, "Stem
Cell Now." And he directs the program on stem cells and society at Stanford
University as part of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Scott. He's the author of the new book, "Stem
Cell Now." And he's the executive director of the program on stem cells and
society at Stanford University. It's part of the Center for Biomedical Ethics
You know, we're talking about embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. So
obviously adults have stem cells. Do we know we have them? I mean, could I
possibly identify a stem cell in my body and what function are they serving in
my body now?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, no, you couldn't identify a stem cell in your body because
they're extremely hard to find. They're very, very low numbers. But if you
can isolate enough of them, you can kind of figure out what they do by their
properties. They have very unusual behavior. I like to think of it in terms
of how we regenerate ourselves. So example, we're basically falling apart and
being rebuilt every second, the human body is. We lose about a billion cells
of every type every hour. And a million skin cells drop off every day. And
the red blood cells are the most ephemeral variety. We lose billions of them
every day. And without a way of replacing them, we'd simply fall apart. For
example, our intestines, that's an area of very high cell turnover, so there's
a lot of stem cell activity there. Our intestines would disappear in two
days. Well, mine would probably disappear in one day because I like spicy
food. Our skin would fall off in three weeks, and we'd run out of red blood
cells in four months. So without stem cells, we'd be nothing but a skeleton
and maybe a few organs limping along, kind of an interesting way of looking at
the regenerative potential of adult stem cells. And it's because of this
regenerative potential that scientists get very excited about how they could
be used to regenerate organs or tissues that have problems because of disease
or even more wonderfully, organs that die as we get older.
So stem cell therapy and regenerative medicine really looks at a lot of
different things. One of them is the fact that, as we get older, we lose that
regenerative capacity. Our stem cells get older, too. If there were a way to
keep them in a culture, in an incubator somewhere, then imagine as you get
older putting those stem cells back into the body and living a longer life.
Now living a longer life isn't always a good thing and there are a lot of
ethicists that I work with who think that 150 year life spans are probably not
a good idea, and I can understand that. I mean, I just turned 50, and I'm
sick of myself already. I don't see how I'd like to live, maybe, another 100
years, but it's definitely something to think about. That's how stem cells
could perhaps extend our lives.
GROSS: Does the fact that we lose so many cells every minute and that they're
replaced by adult stem cells, does that have an impact on how you see
embryonic stem cells and the ethics that you apply to the embryonic stem
Mr. SCOTT: Yes, it does. If the adult stem cells, which are the older
developmentally more mature type of stem cells, if they have the potential
that rivals the embryonic stem cells, then you have a much different case for
use of stem cells for therapies. So adult stem cells are more restricted in
what they can become. An adult stem cell in the blood, for example, can make
only blood. It can't make, for example, a heart muscle, although there are
some that would disagree with that. The skin stem cells, for example, make
only skin. The stem cells that are present deep inside the crypts, these
little places and volutions in our intestine make only new intestinal cells.
But embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, have this powerful ability to
make any one of over 200 cells and tissue types in our body, so if science can
figure out a way to manipulate embryonic stem cells down these pathways for
intestines, for brains, for heart tissue, for new pancreases or new skin, then
you have a single source that could be used over and over again to generate
tissues that are failing or that are injured in a body. That's the promise of
embryonic stem cell research.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SCOTT: It's been a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
GROSS: Christopher Thomas Scott is the author of the new book, "Stem Cell
Now." He directs the program on stem cells and society at Stanford
University's Center for Biomedical Ethics.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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