Medical ethics event here to tackle stem cell research

With stem cell research possibly jeopardized by the change in the presidency, the International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics will tackle the halachic and medical perspectives next month in Burlingame.

Now in its 11th year, the gathering of mostly Jewish professionals in the medical field will take place from Friday, Feb. 16 to Monday, Feb. 19 at the Park Plaza Hotel near San Francisco International Airport.

In past years, between 350 to 450 people have attended, about 30 percent of them Orthodox Jews, according to Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, the founder and dean of the S.F.-based Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics, which sponsors the conference, in association with National Council of Young Israel. The annual event was not held last year because of reorganization, he said.

The conference is an opportunity for those in the medical profession to get an "understanding of the halachic approach to medical ethical problems," said Lipner, who is also dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco. "As medicine develops and advances, more and more problems develop. Many Jewish physicians are anxious to know what the Torah says and what the Jewish approach is."

As in previous years, at least two professionals discuss each topic, with one giving the overall view, followed by an expert in Jewish ethics offering the Jewish perspective.

Rabbi Moshe Tendler of Yeshiva University will deliver two talks, one of them a Jewish response to the controversy surrounding the use of stem cell research to cure degenerative diseases. Dr. Janet Rossant, a professor at the University of Toronto, will offer the medical perspective on the topic.

The keynote speaker will be Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain. While not a medical expert, Sacks "is an eloquent speaker for the Jewish people," Lipner said. "He's an exceptionally good orator and he'll energize and excite the conference by his talk and his remarks."

Other sessions will cover topics like genetic testing for the breast cancer gene, sports medicine, obesity, pain management, liposuction and other cosmetic surgery, and the Internet's impact on medicine.

"Physicians and medical professionals come from all over the world to participate in the 3-1/2 days, to hear what the greatest Jewish ethicists have to say on these topics," said Lipner.

One participant who has lectured in prior years is Tendler, the Isaac and Bella Tendler professor of Jewish Medical Ethics at Yeshiva, widely known for his expertise in Jewish medical ethics. In one of his talks, he will be joined by Rossant, a professor of molecular and medical genetics and of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Toronto, who will give an overview of stem cell research.

Because of their regenerative properties, stem cells can be used to treat a variety of degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's, diabetes, and certain types of cancers, by replacing the defective cells. But these cells are usually taken from embryos — "those that are either created by in vitro fertilization but no longer needed for fertility treatments, or from elective abortions," said Rossant.

Because of that, the pro-life movement is staunchly opposed to such research, and with a new pro-life president, federal funding for such studies could be severely affected.

Stem cells can also be harvested from adults, according to Rossant, from either bone marrow "or specific tissues, most often, the skin."

It might be possible to take a stem cell from the skin of an adult and redirect it, to be used on another person, she said, "but these are questions that we don't know the answers to. There are a lot of research questions out there, and a lot of excitement in the area."

Discussing the halachic perspective, Tendler said that since it has already been proven that such cell therapy has the greatest potential to cure a host of life-threatening diseases, "there is a strong religious requirement to go on."

Because stem cells are considered "pluri," meaning they can become anything, "they hold the promise of being able to provide cells that are young and vital to a failing heart and liver, without worrying about an organ transplant," Tendler said.

As an example, he said, stem cells have already been used to produce cardiac cells. "If enough of these cells can be put into a heart, it can restore it, while if the heart is from someone else, there is always the chance of the body rejecting it," he said.

While the Catholic Church is opposed to any such studies, Tendler was unequivocal in his support of them, on the basis of their life-saving potential.

"Since it is lifesaving research, this idea that an embryo has humanhood is alien to the Christian and Jewish faith," he said. "This research has such great potential that we encourage it very greatly. Even if there were some biblical violations, let alone rabbinic violations, it is so lifesaving that it would preclude them."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."