*Barbara Forrest, Department of HiNews & Political Science, Southeastern Louisiana University, USA, took part in the last meeting of the World Congress for freedom of scientific research. Read original version with hyperlinks “This website is normally devoted to providing information about the teaching of evolution and the fight against creationism in Louisiana and related topics. However, important science-related issues sometimes arise that our readers should know about. The following is one of those issues, and there is a lesson in it for Louisiana: three Italian scientists — Elena Cattaneo of the University of Milan, Elisabetta Cerbai of the University of Florence, and Silvia Garagna of the University of Pavia — are fighting a legal battle in the Italian courts to win the right to apply for government funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, which is legal in Italy. These scientists have taken on this fight at their own expense, and they could use some help. Their bravery in defending science is a lesson for the people of Louisiana, a state in which standing up to defend science is a actually a liability in the eyes of public officials (see also here). Here is the background (this discussion will come back around to Louisiana — so please keep reading!): In March 2009, I had the privilege of participating in the Second World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research in Brussels, Belgium. (Here is the abstract of my paper.) The Congress is held every two years by the Nonviolent Radical Party and the Luca Coscioni Association (LCA) for Freedom of Scientific Research, which is named in honor of its president and founder, Luca Coscioni. Mr. Coscioni died in 2006 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) after suffering for ten years. The LCA promotes the right of scientists to do potentially lifesaving research such as hESC research. (See my July 2009 articles in the Hammond, LA, Daily Star on the LCA website. PDFs of originals [7/24/09] and here [7/29/09].) At the Brussels meeting, I attended presentations by scientists such as Stephen Minger, who does hESC research in the United Kingdom. Minger’s research group created the first human stem cell line in the UK, which was deposited in the UK Stem Cell Bank for the benefit of other scientists. (See “U.K. Stem Cell Policy – A Civic Scientist’s Journey through Regulation�? [pdf] and Minger’s February 2009 address at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. This presentation is essentially the same one he gave in Brussels.) I also heard NBC news correspondent Charles Sabine speak of his father’s tragic death from Huntington’s Disease, from which Sabine, too, will die. He just doesn’t know when it will strike him. His brother — a brilliant, Oxford-educated lawyer — has already been stricken. I had the honor of talking to Mr. Sabine during our bus ride to one of the Brussels sessions. (See the 2009 National Public Radio News on Sabine here. See also, “I Will Die the Most Horrible Death,�? in the August 2009 Guardian here. See Sabine talking about his ordeal here . See here a whole series of videos of Sabine, including his presentation of “The Legacy and the Hope: Huntington’s Disease,�? which is a version of the talk he gave in Brussels.) I also had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Elena Cattaneo, a neuroscientist who conducts stem cell research related to Huntington’s Disease. (See her appeal for contributions to fund the search for a cure here. Video also embedded at the end of this post.) Dr. Cattaneo and Charles Sabine are friends. Together they are working to get Mr. Sabine’s message to as many people as possible about the importance of human embryonic stem cell research — Sabine is literally pleading for this research to continue while he is still able to speak and to travel. While there is no guarantee that stem cell research will produce a cure for Huntington’s Disease, the potential of finding lifesaving cures for a host of genetic diseases like Huntington’s is so promising that scientists around the world are committed to it. (See this 2006 report from the National Institutes of Health. See this November 2009 article about the progress that has already been made using stem cell therapies.) But Dr. Cattaneo has a BIG problem: while hESC research is legal in Italy, the Italian government has denied her and other researchers the right to submit proposals for government research funding. Eurostemcell, a European consortium of stem cell researchers, issued a joint statement [pdf] in July 2007 concerning the obstacles to hESC in Italy: In Italy, it is legal to work on already-established human embryonic stem (hES) cell lines from frozen discarded embryos but it is illegal to derive new hES cell lines. Our scientists stand ready and able to thrive alongside the best of our European colleagues in both human embryonic and adult stem cell research. However the legal research on hES cell lines is nullified by Italy’s public funding decisions: resources for human embryonic stem cell research are denied, allocated only to research on adult stem cells. This regulatory and funding limit hinders effective collaboration in Europe by Italian labs and runs contrary to the spirit of European funding, which expects that national resources align with European ones to promote scientific progress. . . . [F]or Italy to stay in this field of research, and to secure far reaching social and economic benefits, it must also act on Italian funding and regulation. (p. 4) Dr. Cattaneo and her colleagues were denied the right to submit research proposals when the Italian government made available eight million euros ($10,674,745.00) for stem cell research in February 2009. So they filed suit against the government in April 2009. (See the timeline of the case.) In July 2009, the first level regional tribunal ruled against them, saying that only institutions requesting funding had the right to sue the government, not individuals. According to Dr. Cattaneo, “The verdict seems to draw inspiration from an ideology more than from the law. . . . It is also shocking that as individual scientists we do not have the right to appeal against a public call for proposals that limits our freedom to do research that is legal in our country.�? The world’s leading scientific journals, Nature and Science, have both taken notice and reported on this case (see Nature July 2009 and Science July 2009). Dr. Cattaneo and her two colleagues continued their legal challenge by appealing to the State Council, only to lose again in December 2009 when the Council re-affirmed the tribunal’s ruling that only institutions have the right to sue the government. But Drs. Cattaneo, Cerbai, and Garagna are not giving up, as they stated in their February 2010 letter [pdf] in Nature: “As scientists concerned about inappropriate political interference in scientific affairs, we intend to continue the fight through the courts, even if it takes years.�? After their second loss in December, their effort may indeed take years. The problems in Italy originate with the Vatican’s opposition to most kinds of stem cell research and its influence over Italian politicians — and thus public policy. The Church had called the European Union’s 2006 decision to fund hESC research “a twisted sense of progress�? (see here). When the Vatican objected to the Italian government’s funding of hESC research in 2009, politicians changed the funding policy to accommodate its objections. Nature reported that “the exclusion was added by politicians to a text [that had been] agreed [on] by a committee of scientific experts.�? This change is evidence of the Church’s power over Italian politics. In fact, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said in 2006 that “Excommunication will be applied to the women, doctors and researchers who eliminate embryos [and to the] politicians that approve the law.�? However, Prof. Cesare Galli, of the Laboratory of Reproductive Technologies in Cremona, who was the first scientist to clone a horse, responded to this threat and mentioned his colleague, Dr. Cattaneo: I can bear excommunication. I was raised as a Catholic, I share Catholic values, but I am able to make my own judgment on some issues and I do not need to be told by the Church what to do or to think. I will be, together with Elena Cattaneo [a scientist working in the University of Milan] the first to be affected by the excommunication and then there are two other labs that I know using imported embryonic stem cells. Dr. Cattaneo, also a Catholic, responded in 2008 concerning criticism from the Church: I have presented my opinions many times before, and today I choose to be even more direct: I am a Christian and I work on embryonic stem cells, in the same way as I work on adult stem cells and in other fields that do not involve the use of embryonic stem cells. I believe I am right to work on cells that are not ‘embryo’ and obtained from a blastocyst ‘that is not yet a person.’ These cells can help us understand and hopefully contribute to diminish the suffering of many. I also have the hope that there is a God bigger than any earthbound imagination, that has no need to be asserted through dogmas. A God who allows women and men to think freely, to hope, to love, to enjoy and hold their own beliefs having diverse rhythms and forms. A God who lets humanity, individually vested with consciences and ethical tensions, continue to grow (for those that are believers) the gift it has received. A God that perhaps nurtures some love for Science. Because a God who wants to keep us in the dark and in suffering probably does not exist. [*Go here (pdf) for her entire statement, “The Reason Why I Work with Embryonic Stem Cells,”translated from Italian.] One would think that in the face of such formidable criticism, Dr. Cattaneo and her colleagues, Dr. Cerbai and Dr. Garagna, would be hesitant to continue their fight — especially since they are waging this battle at their own expense. But they are undaunted. According to Dr. Cattaneo, “We have a constitutional right to appeal against a public funding call that limits our freedom to do scientifically valuable research that is legal in our country.�? And they are getting support from their colleagues in other countries. Austin Smith, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, England, says, “This courageous action by three Italian scientists is a beacon to all who believe in freedom of research to advance human knowledge and understanding.�? The Luca Coscioni Association has posted a request for donations to provide reimbursements to the three scientists for their legal costs. According to the LCA, The legal expenses for the first degree of judgement were of around 6.000,00 euro. Since the beginning of the appeal (July 7 [2009]) 7.774,79 euro (around 10.592 USD) have been raised. The three scientists have been promptly refunded (see attachments). The spare amount will help covering expenses for next step. ** Readers who would like to donate to help cover the legal expenses can do so HERE using PayPal. Any amount readers can donate will be appreciated. (This is a legitimate avenue for making the donation. Receipts of the reimbursements that have so far been given to Dr. Cattaneo and her colleagues are posted at the bottom of the page at the “HERE�? link above.) So how does all this relate to Louisiana? (Thank you for reading this far!) It highlights the fact that we have absolutely no reason to feel smug about the obstacles to scientific research in Italy — our own house is in quite a bit of disorder. Recall Stephen Minger, who helped create one of the first hESC lines in the UK. Minger recently departed King’s College London to work at GE Healthcare, where he will apply his research in the areas of drug development and toxicology. He also serves on the advisory panel of the International Stem Cell Policy Program at the prestigious James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. While at King’s College, Minger helped secure licensing in the UK for research in which the nucleus of a bovine ovum is replaced by a human somatic cell nucleus in an effort to create hESC lines. The technical difficulty and ethical constraints associated with obtaining an abundant supply of human ova make this kind of research a viable alternative if it can be made to work. (Minger explains it in the video at the link above. See also “U.K. Stem Cell Policy — A Civic Scientist’s Journey Through Regulation�? [pdf]. See this article for a simple explanation of the technique and the reasoning behind this process. See also “Stem Cell Basics�? at the National Institutes of Health.) There is no guarantee that this research will succeed (see this February 2009 article in New Scientist). However, if it could be made to work, there would be abundant stem cell lines that could be used in research to develop cures for Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, and other conditions. Actor Christopher Reeve was well known for promoting stem cell research after his devastating spinal cord injury. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation now continues Reeve’s work. Louisiana residents have traveled as far as China and Portugal to obtain expensive, unproven stem cell treatments because they need a source of hope. In the video above, Charles Sabine says, “Hope is the most important word in the world. So far they [patients] have not had that hope. But we do now have the chance if we can provide the support and the resources to the researchers.�? No one with a heart could disagree with him. Now here comes the kicker: If Stephen Minger were doing his research in Louisiana, he would go to prison for ten years. According to section D.1.e. of Act 108, which became law in Louisiana in 2009, Minger would be in jail and would also be subject to a $10,000 fine. Among the other procedures that Act 108 prohibits (which I am not discussing here), Section D.1.e. outlaws the creation of “(e) An embryo produced by introducing a human nucleus into a nonhuman egg.�? Violators, according to Act 108, “shall be imprisoned at hard labor.�? Section D.1.e. outlaws exactly the same kind of research that is presently licensed in the UK. But Act 108 is not the only anti-stem cell legislation in Louisiana. One year earlier, in 2008 (the same year in which the creationist Louisiana Science Education Act [Act 473] was passed), the state also adopted Act 486, which “prohibits public funds, including tax proceeds, funds received from the federal government, or other revenues of the state or political subdivisions thereof, from being used by any person or entity, including any state-funded institution or facility, for human somatic cell nuclear transfer.�? In short, like Drs. Cattaneo, Cerbai, and Garagna, Louisiana scientists cannot secure either federal or state funding for research that is legal in the United States. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that the Louisiana Family Forum was behind both Act 486 (HB 370) and Act 108 (SB 115). (The LFF gave awards at its 2009 annual legislative awards banquet to legislators who supported Act 108.) With respect to our regressive legislation in matters concerning science, Louisiana has nothing to be proud of. But those of us who disapprove of what the legislature and the governor have done to the prospects for stem cell research in Louisiana can at least show some class and do something to help these three courageous Italian scientists. We can send money to help in their legal case, and we can spread the word on their behalf. If you do not have time to follow all the supporting hyperlinks above, please at least take the time to watch the two videos below. In the first (5:17 min.), Charles Sabine talks about the importance of hope: “Hope is the most important word in the world.�? There are pictures of his father, who died from Huntington’s Disease, his brother, who presently suffers from it, and his wife Nicole and their beautiful little daughter Breezy, who fortunately does not have the HD gene.
hen watch the video of Dr. Cattaneo,�?We Always Need Each Other�? (2:19 min.) in which she speaks of Charles Sabine’s message to the world and of the need to fund HD research.”