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James Thomson and the Holy Grail, continued


The Discovery of a Lifetime

In past years, the reserved Thomson had been so reluctant to get caught up in the controversy that he knew would surely attend scientific discoveries in this area that for a time he seriously considered leaving the work to others. Ultimately he decided that its potential outweighed any other concerns. “I just decided it would be important enough to do it,” he says.

By 1998, Thomson was in the spotlight. Announcing what his peers have called “the discovery of a lifetime,” Thomson and his research team reported in Science that they were able to isolate and grow embryonic stem cells in a way that maintained their pluripotency—the ability to transform themselves into any kind of human cell. Using embryos that had been discarded by couples who sought in vitro fertilization at a University of Wisconsin clinic, Thomas generated five human embryonic stem cell lines derived from blastocysts, a hollow ball of about 150 cells that develops a few days after fertilization. He maintained the cells for five months before reporting his findings and grabbing the grail.

The landmark discovery was heralded as the biggest breakthrough since the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997. David Prentice, professor of life sciences at Indiana State University declared, “We are at the beginning of a revolution that will transform society, comparable to the Industrial Revolution—the biotechnology revolution. This time we will not be engineering machines, but engineering ourselves.” Dr. Austin Smith, director of Genome Research in Edinburgh, predicted that some day every individual would have sample tissue taken to establish a stem cell culture that can be frozen for use throughout their life. “If they have any kind of illness or injury, their own cells will be there, to be grown up and produce the particular kind of cells to treat their disease,” he said. Even Jamie, as his friends and colleagues call Thomson, was uncharacteristically effusive. The possibilities are “limitless,” he told reporters. “Our stem cells can give rise to everything, and they never die.”

 

Duplicate Labs

Thomson also expressed satisfaction last fall when the National Institutes of Health issued the regulations that would allow researchers to submit requests for federal funding just weeks after Bush’s announcement. “It could have been months and months” before they were issued, he says.

By his count, the Congressional ban on federal funding had already cost Thomson about a year. That’s because conducting research on human embryos in Madison without jeopardizing the entire university’s federal funding required him to set up a laboratory that replicated the one he already had at the Primate Center, where he had isolated stem cells from monkeys three years earlier. Thomson’s lab at the WiCell Research Institute, where he is scientific director, was set up specifically for stem-cell research and is operated by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), a not-for-profit entity that has managed patents on behalf of the University of Wisconsin since 1925. While the Primate Center laboratory operates in a pink-stucco building on campus, the lab dedicated to human stem cells is housed in an undisclosed location. Security concerns has made it strictly off-limits to visitors, including reporters.

Thomson’s work on human embryos has been funded in part by the Geron Corporation, a Menlo Park, California-based biotechnology firm, in exchange for some commercial rights. Thomson claims no financial connection to the company, but he does get a small percentage of the revenues generated by WARF, which holds the patents based on the methods described in the Science article.

Last August the relationship between WARF and Geron hit a snag, however. WARF, which holds patents based on the methods described in the Science article, sued Geron for asserting that it had exclusive rights to research products and services. Calling such an assertion contrary to their contract with the company and NIH guidelines, WARF asserted its own right to sell and distribute the stem cells to researchers. “We hope that federal funding and access to stem-cell research products will increase the number of researchers who work with human embryonic stem cells,” said Carl Gulbrandsen, WARF’s managing director. “A greater number of good researchers promise to bring the medicine of tomorrow closer to today.”

As of September, more than 100 academic researchers and numerous companies had approached WARF about licensing stem cell technology. WiCell supplies embryonic stem cells from both rhesus monkey (cost: $2,500) and human origin ($5,000). Scientists are required to sign a licensing agreement that prohibits them from using the cells for cloning or intermingling with intact embryos.

Despite the controversies and media attention, Thomson continues to maintain his focus. WARF administrators have handled the dispute with Geron. Thomson limits the times he spends with the media by screening his calls. When asked about his reaction to making the cover of Time last June because his work was the most “astonishing” of the 25 leaders in science and medicine profiled in that issue, he will only quip, “I was not looking forward to doing the grocery shopping that week.”

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