Prospects for Cooperation in Stem Cell Research

Saturday, February 13, 2016: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM
Marshall Ballroom South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Ali Brivanlou, Rockefeller University, New York, NY
In September 2015, I was invited to lecture at Iran’s Royan Institute, a leading in stem cell research in the Middle East. I had declined previous invitations due to political tensions. But with agreement assured, and the respect I have for the Royan Institute, I decided to accept. After 36 years away, this trip promised to be exciting and emotional. It was. As a stem cell biologist who took the lead in deriving human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in academia during the Bush administration, I delved not only into science but also the socio-political and ethical issues surrounding this research. The hESC project in my laboratory at The Rockefeller University started in 2002, coincidentally the same year Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa declaring such research permissible under Islamic law. Surprisingly, Iran became endowed with some of the most liberal laws on stem cell research allowing not only for hESC derivation but also cloning (in animals). The situation in the US was not the same, as public funds could not be used for this research. I therefore was eager to see how far Iran had gone in the stem cell field. I was stunned with what the Royan Institute accomplished despite limited resources and severe international sanctions. Royan researchers were the first in the Middle East to clone a lamb, and the first in the world to clone a mouflon, clearly at par and sometimes ahead of Western labs. Yet Royan scientists cannot perform aspects of research routinely done here. It is sad to see the consequences of politics on their scientific progress. The removal of sanctions provides a unique prospect for cooperation between US and Iranian researchers that can be synergistic if planned and executed tactfully. This can occur at different levels. In academia, Iranian students will benefit from Western education and technology. It will also allow Iranian researchers to contribute more efficiently to our current knowledge of human development, hESCs, and regenerative medicine. Open exchange of students and professors between the two countries will foster academic collaborations that are vital to our research. In the private sector, cooperation among companies focusing on human reproduction and stem cell-based therapies will boost large-scale projects and clinical trials, and will inevitably benefit the economy of both countries. This cooperation will unveil the best common attributes of two culturally powerful societies in pushing the leading edge of science ahead for the benefit of all.