UCLA's high-profile position in stem cell science has not gone unnoticed in Sacramento. Top state politicians chose Westwood to hold a news conference last August to announce bipartisan opposition to a U.S. Senate bill that would place new limits on human embryonic stem cell research. California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was there. Democratic luminaries included Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa '77. But it was a UCLA student who by all accounts stole the show.
Candace Coffee, a 26-year-old graduate student in the School of Public Health, spoke of her struggle with Devic's disease, a rare and potentially fatal autoimmune condition that left her temporarily paralyzed, permanently blind in one eye and dealing with constant pain and nausea from her regimen of 10 daily pills.
A self-described Christian from a conservative community, she did her own research before deciding to go public. "These are embryos that are already designated for destruction," Coffee says. "These are not fetuses; it's a matter of taking 5- to 8-day-old masses of cells that are going to be discarded and using them for something amazing - to take life that's already in existence and keep it there." Coffee believes Devic's could one day benefit from an emerging stem cell technology known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).
Stem cells are the source of all we become - unspecialized cells that give rise to lungs, liver, brain, hair, heart - and the source of considerable excitement among scientists. Armed with ever more powerful tools, researchers are exploiting the power of stem cells to reveal vital information about human development. Such study could uncover new avenues for treating numerous conditions, from HIV, cancer and stroke to spinal cord injury and musculoskeletal disease; it could lead to a renewable source of replacement cells and tissue to treat metabolic disorders such as diabetes, or degenerative conditions as rare as Devic's or as common as Parkinson's, MS and heart disease.
Although the discomfort often forces her to retreat to the hallway and listen to class lectures through the door, Coffee is on schedule to graduate from the School of Public Health in June.
"I know that for me, it'll probably be awhile," Candace says of the possibility that stem cell research could restore her health. "But I'm thinking optimistically. I'm hoping to see a cure in my lifetime."