Willie Lensch, at work in his lab (photo courtesy of Lensch)

Willie Lensch, at work in his lab (photo courtesy of Lensch)


A Man of Science, and Conscience

by Jenna Beck

Willie Lensch is a lousy Monopoly player. If he owns Boardwalk and you land on it, he can’t bring himself to take your money. “Maybe I’m unhinged or something but I just can’t do it,” he says. “I can’t put myself in a context where I’m a different kind of a person.”

If there is such a thing as a detached man of science, Lensch is not that man. He is a scientist, to be sure: a postdoc in a Harvard Med School laboratory, he works long hours for mediocre pay studying blood cell production (hematapoiesis). He is also a father, a husband, a Catholic and an advocate for embryonic stem cell research.

It was the chance to do this work that brought Lensch to Boston in 2001 with his wife and children. Because federal funding to study stem cells is severely restricted in the US, Lensch was lucky to land a position with Harvard in one of the few labs that has resources enough to conduct the research. The view from his laboratory is a poignant reminder of why he made the move: the windows look out onto the windows of Boston Children’s Hospital, which are painted with bright green trees and yellow suns. “Some of those were painted by kids who’ve been in there for weeks,” Lensch explains. “And there are many cases in there where modern medicine has failed.”

Human embryonic stem cells hold promise for medical research because they have the unique potential to become any type of human cell. Brain, bone, and blood cells all come from embryonic stem cells. Similarly, all human beings come from embryos. Since researching hESCs involves the destruction of embryos, the morality of stem cell research is tied to the question of whether embryos are people.

Before he came to Harvard, Lensch lived in Portland, Oregon, where he studied a rare blood disease called Fanconi anemia. It’s a genetic disorder, often present at birth, which results in birth defects, leukemia, and the failure of bone marrow to produce more blood cells. He realized that in order to understand how genes gave rise to the blood disease, he’d have to watch how blood was made. He drew an analogy to an electronic device—you can understand its functions by fiddling around with the buttons. But to really know how a device works, you have to go to the production plant and watch how it’s made. Blood is made from blood stem cells. Blood stem cells are made from embryonic stem cells. “So when I heard that human embryonic stem cells were available it all came together because here was a cell that could become blood but hadn’t done it yet. I could study as the genes they turn on, turn off, and watch these cells develop.”

Willie misses his church in Portland, and when he moved he was reluctant to tell parishioners there why he was moving to Boston. The Catholic Church forbids embryonic stem cell research, as its official stance is that life should be protected from conception to natural death. “I know the church’s position on this,” Lensch says, “I’ve really thought about it a lot. But basically I’m here to make my own way in the world and when I go to bed at night it’s with my own conscience.”

Lensch attends his lab’s roundtable discussions about bioethics, reads Thomas Merton and Thomas Aquinas when he rides the T, and has had countless discussions on the question of where personhood begins—when that metaphysical thing that makes us us kicks in. He doesn’t claim to know the answer. But he believes that the cells he works with, which were fertilized in an IVF clinic and have never been inside a woman’s body, are not a person.

He’s also quick to point out that though he’s studied morality in books, he learned morality on a small farm in Utah where he grew up. “There’s no talk of embryonic stem cells anywhere in the Bible—there’s stories about people and how to live... It comes down to interpretation… to people of good will being willing to ask and to work toward an answer.”

His upbringing also gave him a considerable emotional stake in cancer therapy. When Lensch was 15 years old, he watched his father die of a rare blood cancer in a veteran’s hospital. As a biology student Lensch tried to avoid any research that reminded him of his father’s death. Then a bizarre set of circumstances in graduate school left him with no choice but to do his thesis work in a Portland veteran’s hospital researching blood malignancy. “I ended up working on leukemia in the very context I wanted to avoid,” Lensch says, “and it became an incredible source of feeling of dedication.”

That dedication has led him to take on the metaphysical uncertainty surrounding his work. Lensch acknowledges that if we don't know where personhood begins, then a cautious approach would be to cease doing research on hESCs.  "I can see that that’s one interpretation," he says. "But I also think it’s an interpretation that gives up. Part of this is that if a question is difficult we are compelled to keep asking it and to get to the answer, or at least one that we can work with."

Related link

Lensch answers New York Times' readers' questions about the latest developments in stem cell technology: