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Lanza urges audience to persevere, keep challenging boundaries of science

Oct. 30, 2013

Dr. Robert Lanza speaks to a crowd of more than 900 Oct. 29 at CCRI's Knight Campus in Warwick. Dr. Robert Lanza speaks to a crowd of more than 900 Oct. 29 at CCRI's Knight Campus in Warwick.

It’s not every night that you get a front row seat to the future. That’s what more than 900 people were treated to in the packed Bobby Hackett Theater at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus on Tuesday, Oct. 29, when renowned scientist Dr. Robert Lanza gave a talk titled “Cloning, Stem Cells, and the Future of Life.”

When Vice President for Academic Affairs Gregory Lamontagne lauded Lanza in his greetings as “one of the world’s leading scientists,” it was a statement one didn’t have to look far to prove. Lanza, chief scientific officer for Advanced Cell Technology and an adjunct professor at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, has been pushing the boundaries of the possible since his childhood in Massachusetts, when at the age of 13, he successfully altered the DNA of a chicken to make it change color.

In fact, it was this sense of possibility – and perseverance – that Lanza sought to present to the crowd that night. When asked what advice he would give students in the room who were just embarking on their search for success, Lanza, a graduate of a public high school, spoke from the heart. “People would always tell me that the things I wanted to do were impossible, and I saw it as a challenge. I said, ‘I don’t buy that.’”

Though Lanza closed the evening with an endearing story about how as a teenager, he marched into Harvard without an appointment to talk to a geneticist during the era of his chicken and egg experimentation and wound up haranguing a man whom he mistook for a janitor but who was actually a Nobel prize nominee, the astounding fruits of his persistence earlier in the evening gave many audience members pause. “This is not science fiction,” he reminded everyone, always in good humor, as he fielded questions about some of the ethical implications of his always complex, often controversial, discoveries.

For instance, Lanza was the first to clone an endangered species in 2001 when he cloned a guar, a rare member of the ox family, using a cow as a surrogate. In 2003, he cloned a banteng from frozen skin cells recovered from an animal that had died at the San Diego Zoo a decade earlier. He spoke of the implications of this technology on correcting biodiversity issues that have arisen as a result of deleterious human effects on many species, but cautioned that bringing back an extinct animal – such as a mammoth – would obviously open up an entirely different can of worms. Of the possibility of having dinosaurs roaming our backyards anytime soon, he joked, “I always say you can’t clone from stone,” referencing what he quips to his friends when they encourage him to bring back the brontosaurus from a femur he displays in his living room.

But those dazzling displays weren’t all Lanza had to offer his audience; there are astounding implications for his work with cells already taking shape in human trials. Through new techniques he and his team have developed to create embryonic stem cells from other, nonembryonic cells, Lanza is first potentially side-stepping the ethical quagmire that has doggedly followed this scientific area since its inception, and second, tapped into a perhaps inexhaustible resource for healing.

Lanza shared results from approved clinical trials he has been running with individuals who suffer from blindness as a result of macular degeneration, and with amazing results. Patients who once were blind can now see after treatments over the course of a month. He said he hopes that other therapies for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus and hundreds of other autoimmune diseases soon will be able to move forward in clinical trials.

Though the event was free and open to the public, much of the audience was composed of CCRI students. Turning out in impressive numbers were students from the college’s Nursing program, who in many respects represent the future of health care – and the people who will see many of these developments come to fruition in their lifetime.

“I thought it was very inspirational,” said Nursing student Emily Sharkey of the talk. “This is totally beneficial to the future of medicine.”

Also in the audience was Meghan Minuto, a student completing the prerequisites for the Nursing program in the hopes of starting the program soon. Her microbiology professor encouraged her to attend the presentation, which she found “incredible.” “It’s crazy to think of the possibilities,” she said.

Students from farther afield made the trip to see the talk, too. Jeremiah Alves, a freshman at the University of Rhode Island, thought Lanza’s presentation was “amazing.” Alves, who said he aspires to work for Lanza or another biotech company, said that the more he learned about the possible uses of stem cells in regenerative medicine, the more inspired he was to continue making headway into the field.

Lamontagne said he was thrilled that the college was able to bring Lanza not only to CCRI, but to expose his work to the larger community as well. “It was wonderful to have Dr. Robert Lanza engage our community with his research and innovations. I believe his passionate advice to fledgling scientists to be persistent and not take ‘no’ for an answer will inspire CCRI students to stay true to their goals and dreams; it will inspire them to contribute in their classes and their communities, knowing that one day their ideas and inventions will become part of larger endeavors that positively impact humanity,” he said.

Lanza’s visit was made possible with support provided by the CCRI Foundation, Human Services Club-Flanagan Campus and the Biology Department.


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