Dr. Donald Landry Presents Curtis Lecture

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By Daniel Drew
SHU Correspondent

Embryonic stem cell research can occur in conjunction with the tenets of faith when certain moral conditions are met, said a leading physician and devout Catholic during the 2008 Bishop Walter W. Curtis Lecture on Tuesday.

Dr. Donald W. Landry, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Experimental Therapeutics at Columbia University in New York, told 100 students, faculty members and visitors that scientists can harvest viable stem cell lines from embryos that did not survive the process of in vitro fertilization.

The Bishop Walter Curtis Lecture is an annual event that promotes the development and dissemination of the Catholic intellectual tradition through scholarly lectures that are accessible to a broad audience.

Landry’s lecture, “The Current State of Stem Cell Research: A Catholic Scientist’s Perspective,” explored the religious and moral implications of such scholarship. He has presented his findings to George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics and made the case for ethical research at the 2005 Stem Cell Bioethics conference at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome.

“Even at the embryonic stage, life is more than the sum of the lives of constituent cells,” said Landry, who is also the interim chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at Columbia.

Landry is renowned in the religious, scientific and public policy realms for his groundbreaking research that sidesteps the controversial process of destroying human embryos to obtain viable stem cell lines.

Because IVF embryos were created for the purpose of new life, they can be utilized only when they have died despite all efforts to save them.

“Death is common ground,” Landry said. “There is a virtue to having crisp thoughts as to when life and death occur.”

Human embryonic stem cells are valuable to researchers because of their pluripotent qualities — that is, they can become any other type of cell. Many scientists believe that these cells will lead to cures for diseases.

But, Landry said, some scientists have no compunction about destroying embryos to harvest new cell lines.

“Science is quite content to treat people as objects,” said Landry who added that an embryo is no less valuable than a person.

Faith and science often differ when it comes to protecting human dignity, according to Dr. Matthew Kenney, executive assistant to the University President and bioethics instructor at Sacred Heart University.

“Dr. Landry’s work is about how we can bridge that gap,” Kenney told the audience. “I think he’s contributed greatly to the conversation.”

Scientists are exploring ways to harvest other stem cells that are not derived from embryos — but those other cells do not have all of the pluripotent qualities of embryonic cells. One promising method includes re-programming skin cells taken from adults.

But if scientists want a moral approach to true embryonic stem cell research, harvesting cells from embryos that have died naturally is the only way, according to Landry.

“Dr. Landry’s work respects Catholic teaching on personhood,” Kenney said. “This discussion is one that will shape the framework of the future.”

Science cannot provide all answers, Landry said.

“If you thirst, you hunger, you yearn…then maybe you’re attuned to some other messages that are coming in,” he said. “And maybe they’re not messages of science.”