Stem cells, on stage

A new play explores how governments should handle research using chimeras

Eva Amsen
Jan 11, 2007
It's intermission, and everybody milling around me is talking about stem cells. We've just seen the first half of Chimera, a world premier play that explores the murky world of stem cell ethics and legislation -- how lawmakers with no background in science should decide what to ban, and what to permit. The first act ends with a debate that includes voices ranging from those with deeply held convictions to those who still haven't formed a clear opinion. Now, I'm hearing audience members echo all sides of this debate as we stand in line for coffee, waiting for the action to resume.The new play centers on journalist Roy Ruggles (played by David Jansen), who sees an opportunity for a great article when his childhood friend, the current Minister of Justice Clare McGuire (Philippa Donville), is grilled by conservative Member of Parliament George Fanning (David Fox) about her opinion towards a nearby lab that is injecting human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) into monkey brains.It's not every theater audience that gets, tucked in with their playbills, a copy of their country's legislation governing the derivation of stem cells and a primer on the use of those cells in research; we did. As mentioned in the play, in Canada it is legal to graft human ESCs into non-human animals as long as they are not used for reproductive purposes, but it is not legal to graft non-human stem cells into a human embryo or fetus.The play comes at a propitious time: In recent months, the UK has been embroiled in a debate over whether to permit research using human-animal hybrid embryos. In 2004, Cambridge researchers combined human nuclei with frog eggs. Yesterday (January 11), the UK's embryology regulator decided to delay any decisions on whether or not to permit the research until autumn, allowing time to conduct a thorough public consultation.In the course of the play, Roy tracks down scientist Nell Harrier (Joan Gregson), who reluctantly explains her research project. She uses primates as a model to study autism, and recently grafted rhesus monkey brains with human ESCs to "humanize the research model." George Fanning challenges Clare McGuire to review the current legislation on the creation of such chimeras, which he finds too permissive. Meanwhile, Nell Harrier defends the use of stem cells for therapeutic research, and complains about the ever constricting guidelines for grant applications. In all, Nell Harrier is quite a believable scientist. She is to the point, dedicated to her research, and would rather work in peace than talk to journalists or politicians (something to which I believe many scientists can relate). However, we never actually see her at work: She is either gardening or visiting Parliament Hill. Nell's unrealistic visits to Parliament Hill are surprisingly in line with recent developments in Canadian research funding. In a response to announced budget cuts for 2007/2008, the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) has encouraged researchers to talk to politicians about the work they've been doing with government grant money, to convince policy makers to free up more future funding. Though the subject is science, Chimera is ultimately a play about politics and policies. This isn't surprising, considering that playwright Wendy Lill was a Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2004, and likely drew from her own experience while crafting the play. To ensure the accuracy of the scientific and ethical details, she enlisted the help of several experts: Thanks to Françoise Baylis (Bioethics and Philosophy, Dalhousie University) and Jason Scott Robert (Centre for Biology and Society, Arizona State University), among others, the audience received accurate information about the pluripotent and adaptable nature of stem cells, and other technical topics.Chimera runs at the Tarragon theatre in Toronto until February 11th, 2007.Eva Amsen is a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry at the University of Toronto and Hospital for Sick Children, studying signaling pathways involved in melanin synthesis and transport.Photography by John Currid, on Homepage Pictured: Joan Gregson as Nell Harrier and Philippa Domville as Clare McGuire.Eva Amsen mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:C. Kittredge, "A question of chimeras," The Scientist, April 11, 2005 C-6: Assisted Human Reproduction Act ''Updated Guidelines for Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Research, June 28, 2006 Ungar, "Canadian stem cell bill passed," The Scientist, October 30, 2003 Pincock, "UK hybrid loophole exposed," The Scientist, June 2, 2004. Pincock, "UK delays hybrid embryo decision," The Scientist, January 11, 2007 President Alan Bernstein encourages researchers to talk to MPs Lill biographyçoise Baylis Scott Robert Theatre http://www.tarragontheatre.comEM Amsen et al., "The guanine nucleotide exchange factor CNrasGEF regulates melanogenesis and cell survival in melanoma cells," Journal of Biological Chemistry, Jan 2006 of Toronto, Department of Biochemistry for Sick Children, Program in Cell Biology