How value-free is stem cell research? Lessons (learned) from quantum mechanics and atomic fission

Author: Alessandra Pasut, 10/15/13
In the original play, the two physicists’ ghosts are staged walking an orbital trajectory like electrons that move around the nucleus metaphorically represented by Bohr’s wife Margrethe, occupying the center of the stage. Much controversy exists on whether the two physicists helped the German dictator Hitler to develop the nuclear bomb and to what extent the two were aware of it. Wiki source

In the original play, Copenhagen, the two physicists’ ghosts are staged walking an orbital trajectory like electrons that move around the nucleus metaphorically represented by Bohr’s wife Margrethe, occupying the center of the stage. Much controversy exists on whether the two physicists helped the German dictator Hitler to develop the nuclear bomb and to what extent the two were aware of it.

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As scientists we’d like to think and even take a bit of pride knowing our research is as value-free as it could be, detached from any political, economical or societal forces and influences. Yet history teaches us how basic research discoveries, from radioactivity to insulin or stem cells, have truly made a huge impact on society, with some of these discoveries turned into life saving treatments and others into weapons of mass destruction.

The issue of value-free or value-laden science is one of the main topics of the upcoming symposium Science and Society 2013: Emerging Agendas for Citizens and the Sciences, organized by the Institute for Science, Society and Policy and Situating Science. One of the events open to the public during this conference is a live performance of selected excerpts from a Michael Frayn play entitled Copenhagen. While not a canonical “stem cell” story (the plot is indeed a re-visitation of an historic meeting that took place in Copenhagen in 1941 between physicists Niels Bohr and his colleague and friend Werner Heisenberg), it did attract my attention because of the implications shared by all scientists working on “high impact” technology.

bomb

Ionizing radiations emitted by a nuclear explosion can cause life threatening injuries, third degree burns with severe health implications for those affected by it.

In the play, the ghosts of Bohr and Heisenberg interrogate each other on the moral responsibility (if any) and leverage of their work on atomic fission during World War II. “I simply asked you if, as a physicist, one has the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy…because the exploitation was obvious…if we could build a reactor we could build a bomb” [Copenhaghen, Act 1]. The two physicists struggle to find an answer to this question. The debate goes on in front of Bohr’s wife Magrethe, who never leaves the stage, and most importantly is not a scientist. Bohr and Heisenberg are faced with the hard task of explaining how one can derive energy from the splitting of an uranium atom and how this energy can be use to build a bomb.  “It’s not easy to explain things to the world at large. I realize that we (scientists) must always be conscious of the wider audience our words may have” [Copenhagen, Act 1].

To me, the most captivating part of the discussion is a reflection made by Heisenberg to Bohr: “Sooner or later the government will have to turn to scientists and ask whether it’s worth committing to those resources. We are the one who will have to advise them whether to go ahead or not.”

Scientists exercise their influence through public engagement events or meetings or by acting as advisors and consultants for governments and other institutions. We claim the right to inform the public and the government on our research and on the impact of it. With every right comes a responsibility. Scientists should not only master the art of using a pipette to clone a gene but they must acquire those skills that will put them at the forefront of policy making strategies to improve the well being of every individual. As Bohr and Heisenberg wisely predicted: “This is physics…it’s also politics. The two are sometimes painfully difficult to keep apart.”

BiernaskieThe use and manipulation of stem cells has been viewed with skepticism and has been used to create unnecessary hype or worry among the public. Despite these obstacles, stem cell scientists are taking tremendous steps forward toward the development of therapies to help save patients’ lives or give them a pain free existence when possible. Jeff Biernaskie’s research on skin stem cells provides a proof of concept for the development of new therapies for burn victims. His lab has developed a new protocol that uses the patient’s own skin stem cells to regenerate the dermis, the deeper layer of the skin whose essential protective/survival functions (pain, cold/heat sensation) are lost with regular skin graft protocol. Photo: Sun News Network

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Alessandra Pasut

Alessandra Pasut

PhD candidate at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Alessandra Pasut received her Masters degree in Molecular Biology from the University of Padova, Italy.  She pursued part of her training at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm funded by the Erasmus Exchange program. She is currently a PhD student in the Michael Rudnicki lab at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, where she uses muscle stem cells as a model to investigate the mechanisms by which tissues instruct their own stem cells to repair and regenerate. Alessandra strongly believes scientists have the responsibility to share their knowledge with the society in an informative and constructive way. Her passion for science outreach earned her multiple recognitions among which the 2010 LetsTalkScience-CIHR Synapse award. Since 2011 she is an Associate Faculty Member of F1000 in Genetic and Genomics for which she writes commentaries and recommendations on published scientific literature. Among her favourite writers are Virginia Woolf and Umberto Eco.
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3 Responses

  1. Eric Mills says:

    Just to clarify the first figure caption, the controversy is whether or not Heisenberg a) tried his best to give Germany a nuclear weapon and failed, or b) deliberately sabotaged the German nuclear research effort. No one thinks that Bohr helped with the German research effort.

    I wonder how comparable nuclear weapons development and stem cell research are. The statement

    The use and manipulation of stem cells has been viewed with skepticism and has been used to create unnecessary hype or worry among the public. Despite these obstacles, stem cell scientists are taking tremendous steps forward toward the development of therapies to help save patients’ lives or give them a pain free existence when possible.

    implies that, at least in your opinion, the benefits of stem cells are clear while the drawbacks are mainly in public perception. That seems like a very different situation than the one that faced the Manhattan Project scientists.

  2. Alessandra Pasut says:

    Hi Eric,
    I really appreciate your insights. The first figure capture statement was actually meant to give equal weight/responsibilities to both Heisenberg and Bohr. The controversy in my opinion exists because while the meeting did happen, what was said at that meeting is not clear. Recollection of that meeting is based on partial historic evidences and interviews. Whether Bohr was clueless while working on the development of a reactor and whether Heisenberg pursued his research knowing where it could go and only after openly faced his mentor with that ethical dilemma is an open question or at least I couldn’t find a reliable source that could point me to a definitive answer. Here are few excerpts from the original script. Heisenberg: “I simply asked you whether as a physicist one has the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy [] and you jumped to the conclusion I was trying to provide Hitler with a nuclear weapon”. Bohr: “And you were?” Heisenberg: “no! A reactor. That was what we were trying to build. A machine to produce power. To drive ships, to produce electricity.” To me, it seems that, apart from the fact that both Bohr and Heisenberg were clearly working together on atomic fission, the rest is left to interpretation. I personally liked the approach chosen by Michael Frayn in leaving the question open to multiple answers. Many themes that the play touches upon are common also to stem cells research, one of them; the most interesting to me, is how value free is research. Another one is science communication.

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