CIRM Education Curriculum Perpetuates Dangerous Mindset about hESC

San Francisco, Calif.: “This is definitely not a fetus yet.” That is what the suggested “script” instructs presenters of an introductory stem cell power point presentation to tell students as they look at a five-day-old human blastocyst, the group of cells comprising the human embryo. The presentation is just one of several educational tools within a web-based curriculum produced by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), in collaboration with California high school teachers and U.C. Berkeley students. The curriculum is part of an ongoing effort to promote stem cell education and awareness among public high school and college students. The stem cell curriculum, which consists of five unit studies in addition to the introductory presentation, is touted to teachers as being “a central source for unbiased, accurate scientific information you can use to engage students in stem cell science while conveying underlying biological concepts and considering underlying ethical dilemmas.” The units cover a wide range of topics, touching on the several types of stem cell research processes available, including embryonic, adult, iPS, and somatic cellular nuclear transfer (SCNT). The curriculum is available to teachers (and students) in free downloads from CIRM’s website.

While the curriculum’s explanation of the biological processes underlying stem cell research may be “unbiased,” when it comes to human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, at least one significant ethical conclusion communicated to the students is not. The introductory presentation highlights the fact that embryos are not defined as fetuses before at least week 5 of fetal development (even though the baby’s heart is already beating). While correct in scientific terms, this explanation of human development conveniently ignores the point—both the embryo and the fetus are human, both are developmental stages through which each of us pass. Students are assured that “embryonic stem cells used for research are harvested from 5-14-day-old embryos, WAY before organ formation starts.” The implied conclusion is that since 5-day-old embryos aren’t fetuses, they are less human than a fetus, and thus acceptable to destroy.

CIRM’s curriculum does at least admit that hESC research isn’t without ethical controversy. The curriculum mentions the ethical objections some have to hESC research, and states that the controversy surrounding hESC led in part to the development of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) research, a stem cell research process that avoids the destruction of human embryos. Nevertheless, CIRM’s introductory lesson still represents hESC as a legitimate source for research stem cells, despite the process’s “debatable” nature. This is hardly surprising, considering that the state stem cell agency gives the majority of its grant money to projects involving hESC.

CIRM recently promoted its curriculum at a meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers in Anaheim. In addition to having a booth at the conference, CIRM gave a workshop presentation to teachers, giving instruction on how to use the stem cell curriculum. The response was positive, indicating that CIRM will be influencing the stem cell education of teachers and students not only in California, but across the nation.

CIRM’s involvement in public education was authorized by the California Stem Cell and Biotechnology Education and Workforce Development Act of 2009 (SB 471), which required California’s Department of Education“in consultation with the CIRM and representatives of the biotechnology industry,” to “promote stem cell and biotechnology education and workforce development in the department’s existing programs . . .” Thoughtful Californians will wonder whether public education really fits within the original job description of CIRM in Proposition 71: to make research grants and construct research facilities. While CIRM’s involvement in public education might result in the next generations being more knowledgeable about stem cell research, it also means the continued propagation of the lie that hESC research doesn’t destroy human life. And that’s something every taxpayer should be concerned about.