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SNL comedian promotes local stem cell research

News of a new stem cell research fellowship for third-year medical students came from an unlikely-and comical-source at the School of Medicine Monday afternoon.

Will Forte, a writer, producer and cast member of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," announced the establishment of the Stem Cell Initiative for Eyes research fellowship in the field of stem cell biology for the 2006-2007 academic year.

Forte addressed the crowd of medical students with the same wry humor he displays on SNL. "You all look like capable, intelligent people, and I hope to someday be operated on by you," he said.

Forte is the national spokesperson for the fellowship's sponsor, SCIfEyes, a Raleigh-based, non-profit organization created to support laboratory research, training and public education in stem cell biology. It recognizes and supports stem cell biology's potential for creating new therapies for the treatment of blindness and other debilitating eye diseases.

Dr. Dennis Rickman, assistant research professor of ophthalmology and neurobiology at Duke University Eye Center and founder and chair of SCIfEyes, noted the current lack of cures for eye diseases.

"Most of the effective therapies can only slow the progression of these diseases," he said. "It seemed like there was potential in stem cell therapy for coming up with novel treatments."

Forte and Rickman met last year through the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles, where both had formerly performed improvisational comedy.

"When Dennis explained to me what he was trying to do with SCIfEyes, I immediately wanted to be a part of it," Forte said. "It's amazing work that he's doing, and I think it's very important."

The SCIfEyes Medical Student Research fellowship is a $10,000 award and one that Rickman said he hopes will be given annually. "The selection process will be through the board of directors for SCIfEyes, most of whom are Duke faculty in the department of ophthalmology and the division of cell therapy," he said. "But it's not restricted to doing research in the department of ophthalmology. The research can be in any department."

Medical students expressed excitement at the prospect of increased opportunities for stem cell research at Duke.

"I've been disappointed that stem cell research has been slowed down the past few years," said Tony Joseph, a first-year medical student. "There's a lot of potential in what kind of illnesses we could treat and cure. I think it could open a lot of doors."

Other students said they were impressed with Forte's involvement in stem cell research advocacy. "Celebrities should spend more time standing up for science," said Sarah Pradka, a first-year medical student.

Both Forte and Rickman acknowledged the controversy surrounding the field, particularly embryonic stem cell research. But they said education about the topic should precede immediate judgement.

"Right now people just don't know that much about stem cell research," Forte said. "A lot of people have jumped into the debate without knowing as much as they should. There's so much promise in this research, and it's a shame that we're not talking more about that."

Rickman said his experience with stem cell research is also very personal. "I'm not only a stem cell researcher, I'm a stem cell recipient," he said. "Nine years ago I received a bone marrow stem cell transplant that saved my life, so I have a great respect for the potential power of stem cells."

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