Twelve years ago, Irving Weissman
discovered a treatment that might have saved the lives of thousands of
women with advanced breast cancer, but pharmaceutical companies weren’t
interested in developing the therapy. Though that interest is finally
being reignited, Weissman doesn’t pull any punches. “I hate to say I
told you so,” he said.
Weissman, a professor of pathology and developmental biology at
Stanford University, spoke Wednesday and Thursday as part of the
Columbia University Department of Religion’s Bampton Lecture series.
The lecture series is modeled after a centuries-old Oxford series of
the same name, and invites famous authorities in their respective
fields to give talks on various issues of interest to the religious
In Wednesday’s lecture, Weissman laid out the conceptual foundation
of his work—that stem cells are rare, self-renewing, and can regenerate
body tissues. Weissman repeatedly expressed frustration that while many
of his discoveries seemed to hold remarkable potential for life-saving
treatments, commercial or regulatory hurdles have prevented his
scientific research from benefiting human beings.
One example is Weissman’s mid-’90s research on type I diabetes, in
which he demonstrated the ability to fully cure type I diabetes in mice
using stem cells. But even though the experiments avoided political
controversy by using so-called adult stem cells, which do not come from
embryos, Weissman ran into a road block when pharmaceutical companies
refused to sponsor clinical trials. The therapy went nowhere. Weissman
implied that the pharmaceutical companies had put profit over
principle, preferring to keep diabetes sufferers dependent on costly
insulin than to cure them once and for all.
“He [Weissman] has a long history of being at the forefront of his
field,” Arthur Palmer, professor of structural biology at Columbia
said, remarking that Weissman has never been afraid to challenge
One example of this iconoclastic streak is Weissman’s outspoken
disagreement with recent reports that adult stem cells can be
“reprogrammed,” obliviating the need for the more powerful embryonic
Weissman geared his presentation to a lay audience, only
occasionally drifting into jargon. Jaffer Kolb, who was visiting his
sister at Columbia, enjoyed Weissman’s talk. “I have no science
background,” he said, “so I was afraid I would have a hard time. But it
was really easy to follow.”
The presentation left some audience members with questions. Susan
Doubileg, a Columbia alumna, wondered if Weissman’s results were as
conclusive as presented. “If they were so useful, why weren’t they
picked up in other countries?” she asked, referring to Europe’s less
restrictive stem cell regulations. Nonetheless, Palmer cautioned
against dismissing Weissman’s research. “He’s been right a lot in the
past,” he said.
Weissman’s final two lectures are scheduled for Jan. 27 and Jan. 29, from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. in IAB 1501.