Spreading the Word

PhD Candidates Nika Shakiba and David Lee spin the ethics and science of stem cells into a Canada-wide conversation

What does a discussion among approximately 140 high school students, volunteers, teachers, and world-leading scientists on the subject of stem cells sound like?

Oddly personal, important, and revolutionary.

“A student was saying that one of his friends died of leukemia and asked whether cord blood would have made a difference,” relates David Lee co-organizer of StemCellTalks, an invite-only conference for high school students held at the MaRS Auditorium last week.

Lee joined fellow PhD Candidate organizer Nika Shakiba in organizing the annual event. A collaborative effort between the national volunteer science organization Let’s Talk Science and the Stem Cell Network, the one-day symposium highlights important areas in the science and ethics of stem cells to an audience of students hand-picked by their high school science teachers.

The brainchild of former IBBME students Angela McDonald and David Grant along with head organizer Paul Cassar, who ran their first event in 2010, StemCellTalks draws on deep roots at the University of Toronto.

“We have a rich tradition in stem cells here in Toronto,” explains Lee. “The discovery of blood stem cells happened right here.”

The one-day conference consisted of an introduction to stem cell science by Assistant Professor Penney Gilbert (IBBME), followed by lively debates by world-renowned leaders in stem cell science, including IBBME Professor Peter Zandstra and Dr. Armand Keating, Professor of Medicine, cross-appointed professor to IBBME, and Director of the Cell Therapy Program at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

While Zandstra made the case for hematopoietic stem cell treatments for diseases such as Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), fellow scientist Peter Tonge argued for the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC)– cells that can be programmed to become any type of cell in the body. Students then launched their own debates during breakout sessions and real-time Twitter feeds.

But it’s the social aspects of this relatively young research field that make the arguments – and the science behind them – rare.

“What makes StemCellTalks unique is the juxtaposition of practical ethics with science.” argues Lee. With their unique characteristics, and sometimes conflict-laden sources, as with the use of embryonic stem cells for therapies and research, since their discovery in 1961 stem cells have been featured in Presidential addresses and made headline news around the world.

StemCellTalks invites youth to become participants in the debates surrounding this science and its practical applications. “It’s not just a one-way transfer of knowledge but a dialogue that happens between generations who are stakeholders in stem cells research,” Shakiba argues.

Shakiba, who returns for her second year as coordinator of the University of Toronto St. George Campus’s chapter of Let’s Talk Science, says that the conference creates space for a genuine conversation. “We want to make the students stem cell literate. The main point is to make the biology and the ethics of the stem cell field accessible to youth. To get them thinking critically about these topics. To get them involved in the discussion,” she says.

The popularity and importance of the debate is perhaps best measured, though, by its rapid expansion. This year, StemCellTalks has spread to six cities across Canada including Ottawa, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Hamilton.

More information on StemCellTalks can be found on the website: http://www.stemcelltalks.ca .