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A side profile of Dr. Jack Kessler looking intently in front of him
“I absolutely, firmly believe, with every ounce of my intellect, that stem cell biology is going to revolutionize medicine….Every impediment that gets thrown up delays it. And that’s very personal for me now…”
—Dr. Jack Kessler

Because of its immense implications, the debate over stem cell research has become more heated and nuanced with recent scientific advances. With the passage—and veto—of federal and state legislation regarding this research, a variety of questions have entered the national dialogue. What is the public need for this research? Who will have access to these treatments? Who will own the results of scientific breakthroughs?

MAPPING STEM CELL RESEARCH: Terra Incognita puts a human face on this controversial subject. When neurologist Dr. Jack Kessler’s daughter injured her spine in a skiing accident, he turned his energies toward finding a method to repair damaged spinal cords, re-focusing his research on developing a therapy using embryonic stem cells to regenerate the damaged parts of the nervous system. His research has taken him into a politically very sensitive area in which Catholic and fundamentalist Christian views about the beginning of life exert a powerful influence.

Kessler uses his position to educate the public about the benefits of stem cell research through public speaking engagements and articles for the newspaper. In his work with two graduate students, Vicki and Vibhu, he guides them through a painstaking experiment on mice with spinal damage. In addition, during one of the weekly lab meetings with his students, Kessler discusses the religious objections and misunderstandings regarding stem cell research. His colleague, Dr. Laurie Zoloth, who shares in Kessler’s public education efforts, also delves into the moral and ethical questions surrounding the research in her classes on bioethics. The questions are difficult ones, involving different religious beliefs and the meaning of human suffering.

Responding to the views of the majority of Americans, Congress passed the Stem Cell Research and Enhancement Act of 2005, which was vetoed by President Bush. Another bill supporting stem cell research made its way though Congress in 2007 and also received a presidential veto. The discussion and debate continue as individual states pass laws affecting stem cell research, while other countries move ahead in this field.

Through the personal experiences of the Kesslers, lab researchers and others affected by spinal cord injury, MAPPING STEM CELL RESEARCH follows the evolving interplay between the promise of new discoveries and the controversy of modern science.

Research Update

The filming of MAPPING STEM CELL RESEARCH ended in 2006. In November 2007, a major breakthrough in stem cell research was announced. Scientists in the U.S. and Japan, working independently, discovered a way to reprogram skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. The development is likely to transform research and possibly eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells, bringing an end to the ethical debate. Dr. Robert Lanza, chief science officer at the biotech company Advanced Cell Technology, said that medical uses of stem cells developed using the new technique were many years away. "I can't overemphasize the use of caution here," Lanza said. "These are not ready for prime time."

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