Stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler was in his early 40s and recovering from prostate cancer surgery when, in 2009, he decided to start a blog. He began writing about controversial issues like embryonic stem cells and stem cell tourism, winning himself a few enemies, but also a loyal readership.
Through his blog, called The Niche, Knoepfler has elevated his stature to the point where he’s now widely recognized as one of the best informed, most passionate, and thoughtful public voices on the topics of stem cells and genetic engineering. The University of California, Davis, professor talked with STAT about his newly published second book, his worries about “designer” babies, and his love of Middle-earth.
You said you were nervous about blogging when you first started. Why did you see it as risky?
I wasn’t sure how my academic peers would view it. When I started, I didn’t have tenure — that made it a little bit scarier. But I felt somewhat: “Screw being cautious. You could die anytime, so if you want to do something, take the plunge.”
Have your fears been realized?
Blogging didn’t prevent me from getting tenure. I have had some challenges at times, like stem cell clinics threatening to sue me or do me some personal harm, but nothing — knock on wood — like that has happened so far.
There are a lot of stem cell clinics that promise to cure everything from bunions to heart disease. Do you think there’s real potential in stem cells as treatments?
There’s some hard-core research that is going to make a huge difference. There’s a bunch of stuff in the middle that might be valuable or might not. And then there’s snake-oil stuff. A lot of patients tell me they don’t know how to tell the difference.
What do you think about CRISPR, the relatively new tool for genome editing?
Almost everyone in my lab is now using it.
But it seems you have concerns about using the technology outside of research, as evidenced by the title of your new book “GMO Sapiens.” Do you object to the morality of playing God by changing genes?
I don’t have a moral objection to it. I just think this is such a new technology. There is a pretty good chance that if we implement this clinically, we could end up making human beings who are worse off than if we hadn’t attempted this. Or, it could be the editing works the way we want but has unintended consequences.
Where did your passion for writing come from?
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved to write stories. In eighth grade, I won a $50 prize for a poetry contest. I got into the “Lord of the Rings” pretty young — that definitely had an impact.
So, after one book on stem cells and another on human gene editing, will your next book be science fiction?
It’s definitely in the back of my mind. In teen fiction, human genetic modification and cloning are huge.