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Renowned researcher Dr. Robert Lanza
to discuss cloning, stem cells on Oct. 29

Oct. 23, 2013

Dr. Robert Lanza Dr. Robert Lanza will speak about cloning and stem cells at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Knight Campus in Warwick.

The CCRI community and members of the public can hear about some truly revolutionary science next week when Dr. Robert P. Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology and an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, speaks about the use of cloning and stem cells in both medicine and conservation – including the potential of resurrecting endangered and extinct animals.

His presentation, “Cloning, Stem Cells and the Future of Life,” will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29, the in the Bobby Hackett Theater at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus in Warwick.

Lanza, who is considered to be one of the world’s leading scientists, with hundreds of publications and inventions and more than 30 scientific books published to his credit, will give the audience a glimpse into new techniques and tools – some already in the works, some to be revealed in the not-too-distant future – that have the power to save lives and change the world.

“I want people to see the coming revolution, to see what’s possible,” he said. “I think these new technologies are going to inspire people, and give them hope.”

Although the science behind Lanza’s work is undeniably complex, he aims to present the information in a way that will make it as accessible as possible, even to those without a scientific background. Even still, what he describes may be hard for some outside the field to imagine.

In 2001, Lanza was the first to clone an endangered species when he cloned a gaur, which is an animal in the ox family that can be found (rarely) in India, Indochina and Southeast Asia. He was able to do this by using a bull – both as the surrogate for the pregnancy and on the cellular level as a surrogate for the gaur’s DNA.

In 2003, he followed up that success by cloning another endangered wild ox, this one a banteng, from frozen skin cells collected from an animal that had died more than a decade earlier at the San Diego Zoo. Despite the fact that DNA degrades over time, Lanza said there were now sophisticated technologies that could “complete the picture,” penciling in the rest of the genome map where information has gone missing, making it possible to produce these cells from older specimens.

No matter what you think of the ethical issues surrounding cloning, said Lanza, the science has the potential to right some wrongs done to endangered species at the hands of the very people who could now save them.

“I’m very involved in conservation biology. I’m in favor of using this for animals that are going to go extinct if we don’t help them. The banteng, for example, was being shot to death. I think we have a responsibility, if the habitat is still there, to give them a fighting chance,” said Lanza.

While some will take issue with the notion that this same science could be used to resurrect animals that no longer exist – such as the wooly mammoth, specimens of which have been found in the permafrost – Lanza said that while he could certainly weigh in on his view of the ethical questions involved in this sort of science, his job as a scientist – and during his lecture – is to present the science itself and what’s possible. “What society decides to do with it, I am not going to be in a position necessarily to make those decisions,” he said.

There are, of course, wide and miraculous implications for another species of animals: us. Lanza also will speak about his work with stem cells. Stem cells are somewhat of “master keys” within the human body in the sense that they can be used to generate many types of cells, and in large numbers. Historically, while these have been harvested from human embryos, Lanza has worked to essentially create these cells using non-embryonic tissue, such as skin cells, offering a way for science to “hopefully sidestep most of the controversy [surrounding embryonic stem cells],” he said.

And the reasons for pushing this research through are many: These cells can be used to save lives now and in the future. Most recently, Lanza said that clinical trials are in process for treating degenerative eye diseases that cause blindness, for which there is no known cure. In a recent clinical trial, he cited that one patient who had 20/400 vision improved to 20/40 vision within a month. He added that he was hopeful that his group would be proposing similar trials for other incurable diseases, such as lupus, to the FDA for clinical trials soon.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course; Lanza also will discuss how stem cells can generate red blood cells, which could potentially create an ever-flowing source of blood for transfusions. With safety and rejection of transplanted tissue being an issue as well, Lanza also noted that one of the advantages of these cells is that they could be used to create tissue that its host would not reject.

Under all of the successful science is the desire to help others, to make the world a better place. Lanza said that as a medical student, he was faced nearly every day with deaths that seemed senseless. The passing of his sister, who died in the emergency room following a traumatic car crash when there was a shortage of platelets for transfusion, as well as his father, who died of a pulmonary lung disease, only further stoked his fires.

“There should be something we can do about this. I want to save people and I’m doing what I can. I think that a little bit of effort from me as a small person can probably help a lot of people,” he said. “A lot of these people in the audience at the college will see some of this in their lifetimes. It’s going to revolutionize medicine and, hopefully, they won’t have to suffer some of the things I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

The lecture is free and open to the public, with support provided by the CCRI Foundation, Human Services Club-Flanagan Campus and the Biology Department. For more information about the lecture, call 401-825-2400. More information on Lanza is available online.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16