Students Explore Stem Cell Issue

Daniel Cousineau, Erin Underwood, Neal Laxpati, Jenah Zweig, Sahil Chaudry, Dillon Nichols and Sara Filliman, from left, in Washington, D.C.

Photo/Sara Filliman

There is one standout class at USC that exemplifies the spirit of this column. In MDA 365, the leadership class taught jointly by President Steven B. Sample and University Professor Warren Bennis, students are given a one-sentence assignment for their final project: “Observe and practice the art of leadership.” This semester, one student group is doing so in an unusual way.

The seven group members Sahil Chaudry, Daniel Cousineau, Sara Filliman, Neal Laxpati, Dillon Nichols, Erin Underwood and Jenah Zweig spent a long time considering how to push the boundaries of leadership. Inspiration came when group members had a conversation with a local physician who works in a children’s hospital. The doctor mentioned the Sibling Donor Cord Blood Program, a struggling medical initiative based in Oakland, which hoped to capitalize on the possibilities presented by stem cells found in the placenta after a baby is born.

Unlike the embryonic stem cells that have sparked intense ethical debates, umbilical cord stem cells can be used without compromising the life of a fetus. These cells can be used for an alternative treatment to bone marrow transplants, and they have the potential to cure life-threatening diseases like sickle cell anemia and leukemia. Under the Sibling Donor program, a baby’s cord blood is banked at birth, making stem cells immediately available to older siblings who have transplant-treatable diseases.

Laxpati’s biomedical engineering major makes him the only group member with a background in health. The other students work in disparate fields: business, international relations, communications, political science. In the end, they chose the umbilical cord project because “even though we come from different backgrounds, this was an idea that excited all of us,” Laxpati said.

The group put together an impressive program of activism to promote the use of umbilical cord stem cells. In February, the students flew to San Francisco to meet with the director of the Sibling Donor program. With his blessing, they then arranged a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. in March. There they met with the staff of Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) and Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif). The result is that Solis is now in the process of gathering the information required to introduce a bill supporting a national cord blood banking program.

The group leaves behind Project UCSC (Umbilical Cord Stem Cells), a student organization that will continue to advocate for umbilical cord stem cells. “We don’t know what’s involved in putting together national legislation because we are not congressmen,” Laxpati said. “But that’s the point: If we can find champions for our cause, we can literally save lives.” And there is no better form of leadership than that.

This concludes the Learning Has No Boundaries column as well as the Academic Culture Initiative’s six-year effort to foster a more robust academic environment at USC. I wish to thank my collaborator, USC Vice President Michael Jackson, along with hundreds of faculty and staff and thousands of students for their support of and participation in ACI programs.
Mark Kann