Two years ago, LSA junior Michael Rubyan walked into a meeting hosted by the Student Society for Stem Cell Research.
Hope for people like his grandparents led him there. His great-grandmother had Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition, and his grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease. Stem cell research is thought to have the potential to cure both diseases.
After hearing a presentation by Sean Morrison, the director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, and Kathleen Russell, the congressional coordinator of the Parkinson’s Action Network, Rubyan left with a mission.
“I walked out and thought to myself, this issue seems to be misunderstood by so many people and everybody should understand it,” he said.
Rubyan, a film major, has been working on a documentary, “Life for the Living,” ever since.
The film, which aims to explain the science and politics behind stem cell research, premieres tonight at the Michigan Theater at 7:30 p.m.
The film, in which Rubyan travels around the nation collecting interviews from individuals with diseases that could be treated by stem cell research, seeks to explain why the research is “the future of science,” he said.
Stem cell research is thought by many scientists to open the door to cures or better treatments for ailments including diabetes, spinal cord injuries and cancer.
“We’re not interested in telling people what to think or what to do,” Rubyan said. “What our film is designed to do is help people see the whole issue in an hour.”
Rubyan said he thinks explaining the issue more will support further study of the issue.
“This film really hinges around the people who might benefit from this (research) one day, because their stories might move people to see what this issue is really about,” he said.
Michigan’s policy on stem cell research is one of the strictest in the country.
Research which uses state funding can only be done on adult stem cell lines and pre-existing embryonic lines, while states like California, Wisconsin and Massachusetts allow embryonic stem cell research.
“For years, the (state) legislature just declined to engage in this debate,” said Morrison, who’s interviewed in the film. “I think that the more people in the state who understand the importance of this research, the more it’s going to be impossible to just ignore it.”
Stem cells are promising in research because they have the ability to become any kind of specialized cell.
There are two main types of stem cells used in research – adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are partially specialized and cannot multiply indefinitely, while embryonic stem cells are entirely unspecialized and for that reason are often considered more versatile and promising.
LSA freshman Meghan Strapec, event chair of Students for Life, said using embryos for stem cell research is equivalent to murder.
“Life begins at the moment of conception,” said Strapec, who plans to see the film. “No one has any right to tamper with that.”
She said researchers should instead focus on adult stem cells.
“But even if there were no other way, even if adult stem cells wouldn’t work, I would never support embryonic stem cell research,” she said.
Morrison said he hopes people will appreciate the film’s effort to present stem cell research as a philosophical question rather than an exclusively scientific one.
Rubyan and Morrison will lead a question and answer session following the screening.
– Ivy Wei contributed to this report.