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Jack Kessler Interview

In November 2007, Dr. Kessler was invited to appear on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight to give his response to the recent breakthroughs in stem cell research. Read highlights from the interview transcript below.

Phil Ponce, WTTW: What is unique about this latest development?

Dr. John Kessler: In the past, it was necessary to take cells out of an embryo, and that's what's creating a lot of the ethical debates. What scientists were able to do now is take a skin cell from an adult, put a number of genes into that skin cell and convert it into a cell that's very similar to an embryonic stem cell. Not identical but similar to it, and it appears to be able to generate many different cell types, hopefully all the different cell types of all the organs in the body.

WTTW: What will it take to find out if they act not in just similar ways but identical ways with the same type of potential?

Dr. Kessler: More research that involves both type of cells. So there are some people who say: Oh, great, now we don't even have to use embryonic stem cells anymore. But of course we do, because we have to compare the two cells to see how they are the same and different.

WTTW: Dr. Kessler, when the story came out about these skin cells being made to act like embryonic stem cells many people reacted: Oh good, the ethical war, the ethical considerations are all sort of resolved. I'm hearing you say they are not.

Dr. Kessler: Well, they are really not. They have not been used. In fact, I think we are a little bit premature to being used. There is a company that's hoping to do a trial on spinal cord injury in the very near future. That may be a little bit early. This is not something that we are ready for now, or next year. It will be measured in years, not decades, but years before we have practical therapies.

WTTW: Are you convinced, though, that those practical therapies will happen?

Dr. Kessler: I’m absolutely convinced. I started working on these problems more than 25 years ago.
At that point in time, it was faith without seeing the science to make it happen. Now I can see the science.
It's really as much scientific engineering as making theoretical breakthroughs.

WTTW: In terms of other costs that this debate has caused, how would you assess that?

Dr. Kessler: Well, you know, I think the debate and the political obstructions have probably cost us four or five years of progress. When we reach the point where we actually have cures, we will be able to say we could have had this four or five years earlier. And the millions of people who died during that four or five-year period died because of that political instruction. To me the ethical onus is a terrible thing to bear.

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