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In 1998, graduate alumnus Dr. James Thomson won the race to isolate and culture human stem-cells for a sustained period—one of the holy grails of medical science—but he can’t outrun the controversy generated by his work. Increasingly, he isn’t trying.

BY LESLIE WHITAKER


Developmental biologist Dr. James Thomson V’85 Gr’88 doesn’t like to waste time. He keeps his wardrobe basic, his speech succinct. (“The people I admire use relatively few words and choose them carefully,” he says.) Because he doesn’t think much of television, and he doesn’t want his children to squander the precious hours of their childhood, he doesn’t own a set.

So it’s not surprising that in his laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Thomson is assistant professor of anatomy in the Medical School and chief pathologist at the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center, he has cut to the heart of the matter. Ever since earning joint doctoral degrees in veterinary science and molecular biology at Penn, he has focused on stem cells, the most potent of nature’s basic building blocks. With the ability to develop into any one of the 220 cell types that make up the body, stem cells hold extraordinary promise for treating a host of debilitating illnesses, including diabetes, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and spinal cord injury. Eventually, cultured stem cells may serve as a source of new healthy cells to replace damaged neurons, heart muscles, and brain tissue and to quickly test new wonder drugs. They may even help scientists solve a fundamental puzzle: why some cells stay healthy while others perish.

Stem cells themselves don’t waste much time. They emerge as an inner layer of the cluster of cells that form five or six days into the embryo’s development. Within another day or two they start to differentiate, transforming themselves into the specific cells they will become as the embryo grows into an entire body. Because many diseases can be traced to the malfunctioning of just a few specific cells, figuring out how to culture stem cells in a petri dish and then coax them into specific types of healthy cells on command has become one of the holy grails of medical science.

Along with that extraordinary promise, has come the complication of political controversy. While adult and animal cells are also being used to explore stem cell development, research on stem cells from human embryos is expected to be among the most fruitful. But that line of inquiry has been denounced by anti-abortion activists and conservative religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II, as immoral. Although the Clinton administration approved of funding for such work, since 1995 Congress had included language in its appropriation bill banning stem-cell research from receiving federal financing.

The federal coffers were pried open last August, however, by President George W. Bush, who surprised critics and supporters alike when he lifted the ban he had imposed—reversing the Clinton administration—upon taking office. Bush had apparently been swayed to reconsider after several prominent Republicans, including Senator Orrin Hatch and former First Lady Nancy Reagan spoke out forcefully in its favor, citing the potential for medical breakthroughs. Among those Bush consulted were Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who as governor of Wisconsin had praised James Thomson’s work.

But there was a catch: Bush banned research that used newly-created cell lines from receiving federal funding. To qualify for funding, researchers must restrict their work to stem cell lines that have already been created in accordance with NIH guidelines. While Thomson doubted the President’s assertion that there were 64 cell lines in existence that could be used by researchers, the scientist’s reaction to Bush’s announcement was characteristically composed: “I’m not completely happy with the decision,” he said, “but the President came a long way.”

 

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