Doors open for lab tech students

March 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
President Barack Obama has lifted a ban on embryonic stem cell research. That's a major policy change that will pump millions into Bay Area biotech companies.

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The president signed an order that will dramatically expand this type of research, making federal funding widely available, but he acknowledges there's no guarantee it will lead to the sought-after treatments and cures.

"But I can promise that we will seek them: actively, responsibly and with the urgency required to make-up for lost ground," said President Obama.

This means facilities like UCSF need lab technicians, a lot of them and they suddenly have a lot of work to do. However, they don't have enough technicians because they haven't been able to train them.

Students at City College of San Francisco are performing an experiment using cells from hamsters and mice. The school isn't licensed to use human cells.

"I think that is a big step up," said Edwin, a student.

Over at UCSF researchers can use human cells. They teamed up with City College four years ago and invited students from the City College stem cell program to come over and learn in their lab, but the students haven't been allowed in yet.

"It's been very frustrating," said Susan Fisher, M.D., from UCSF's embryonic stem cell program.

Before City College students could start at UCSF, the university had to build a separate lab for them using state money because of restrictions imposed by the Bush Administration. The lab isn't quite ready yet, so the university hasn't been able to help train these students to become technicians.

Now that President Obama has lifted the restrictions on federal funding of the research, the university needs lab techs more than ever before.

"It would be fantastic to have a work force that was at the ready to populate the labs. We don't now because we haven't been able to do the training," said Fisher.

Of course, students and teachers on both campuses celebrated Monday's announcement.

"A lot of our students were very excited it's something we've been looking forward to for a long time," said Carin Zimmerman, a City College instructor.

But as they prepare to merge their programs, critics of the president's action are distraught over what this will mean in the debate over life and death.

"Given that it's a human being from the moment of conception, you're talking about the killing of innocent human beings for the sake of some purpose," said Raymond Dennehy, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at USF.

But UCSF and City College of San Francisco will start moving forward this summer. The new lab has lots of room for many eager students.

"We are now prepared to offer first class training courses to students from around the area and around the state," said Fisher.

UCSF researchers say whenever a new tech joins their team, it can take them up to a year to get up to speed. That's why they're excited to now be able to train groups of people in all the labs, without any restrictions.

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