I have always been impressed by the passion and dedication that medical researchers bring to the search for cures. Clive Svendsen, who has since left the University of Wisconsin for California, would get visibly moved when he spoke to me about the patients with ALS that he knew, and how his lab was trying to help them. When my wife Heidi met Harvard researcher Doug Melton several years ago, she was touched by Dr. Melton’s personal story of how he changed his entire career path to focus on stem cell research after both of his children developed juvenile diabetes. The men and women doing this research are truly inspiring and honorable human beings.
One of our goals when we founded Wisconsin Stem Cell Now was to be the voice of the researchers. We wanted to stand up for them, in the face of misinformation and scare tactics about “mad scientists.” We also wanted to allow them to keep focused on their work, and not get distracted by political grandstanding. We also knew that researchers who work for the UW system have to be careful when they speak out publicly on political issues.
But enough is enough. Today, the scientists struck back.
At the Isthmus newspaper in Madison, reporter Andrew Casper describes how this year’s gubernatorial race has turned stem cell researchers into “reluctant activists.” Casper interviews several researchers, in addition to Tom Still, the President of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Key quote:
According to a recent Harris poll, 72% of adults support embryonic stem cell research. But opposition to this research is a critical issue on the religious right and thus has been embraced by people running for public office.
In his campaign, Walker has said he opposes state funding for the research. Still calls this a “poor fort,” because state funding is nearly negligible when compared to private and federal outlets. Indeed, there are currently no state grants for stem cell research in Wisconsin.
Walker, says Still, has not publicly committed to seeking a state ban on embryonic stem cell research. A statewide ban exists in South Dakota and Walker told abortion opponents this spring that he would support such a ban in Wisconsin. But he and his campaign have refused to confirm that stance, possibly fearing backlash from voters enthused by the long-term potential of this research to produce new treatments for Parkinson’s, diabetes and traumatic spinal cord injuries.
Walker says he opposes the destruction of human life for the sake of research and plans — if elected — to support adult stem cell research rather than embryonic. This stance has garnered him the support of pro-life voters and pro-life groups, but angered many scientists.
Stephen Duncan, a stem cell researcher at the [Medical College of Wisconsin] in Milwaukee, calls some of Walker’s statements about the possibilities of adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells “blatant lies,” because Walker has implied that adult stem cells hold as much promise as embryonic stem cells.
That adult stem cells hold the same potential as embryonic stem cells is simply not true, says Duncan, who works with both types of cells in his lab.
The entire article can be read here.
In addition, at a news conference today at the home of Stemina Biomarkers Discovery, a Madison company that uses human embryonic stem cells to create drug screening technologies, company spokespersons were joined by researchers Tim Kamp and David Gamm. The speakers condemned political rhetoric that spreads misinformation about stem cell science in order to garner votes.
Here is an excerpt from the press release issued at the news conference:
Kamp, director of UW–Madison’s Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, said potential applications for all of the cell types are expanding, with advancements in one area often contributing to achievements in the others. However, the overall progress does not mean one type of cell can substitute for another.
Human embryonic stem cells continue to be the “gold standard’’ for a master stem cell type and advancing scientists’ understanding of the new induced pluripotent stem cells requires careful comparison with embryonic stem cells. Without access to such critical control systems, Kamp said scientists could wind up wasting precious time and resources. Handicapping the ability of researchers to do the scientifically indicated experiments will put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage relative to other countries where this research flourishes. In the end, it will result in lost opportunities for new jobs and first access to promising new treatments for a range of diseases.
“We need to continue exploring every avenue because there are advantages, disadvantages and varying capabilities with these cell types,’’ Kamp said. “For example, although adult stem cells show great promise at being able to repair heart and nerve tissue, acquiring adult heart and brain stem cells would require invasive and risky procedures. And induced pluripotent stem cells have shown a tendency to retain memory of their original cell type, so we still have some hurdles to overcome compared with our progress in human embryonic stem cells.’’
Kamp and Gamm, a UW–Madison stem cell researcher and assistant professor of ophthalmology, pointed to recent studies that highlight some of the differences among the cells. While it is true that the cells show striking similarities in some respects, the recent studies show important distinctions.
One paper, published earlier this year in Nature by Harvard scientist George Daley, found that cell‐type origin affected the efficiency of the differentiation process. A second study, published in Nature Biotechnology by Konrad Hochedlinger and colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine, described the extent to which induced pluripotent stem cells retained genetic markers from their past lives as skin, blood or other types of progenitor cells.
UW–Madison’s Gamm said such studies are providing important new insights into critical aspects of human cell development and raise new possibilities for patients, their families and society. At this critical point, it would be unfortunate for polarizing rhetoric to translate into new and excessive restrictions on research or uncertainties for scientists who are working to manage complex interdisciplinary projects that involve the living cells.
“Human embryonic stem cell research is an important component of an intense effort to better understand and find treatments for incurable diseases,’’ Gamm said. “Furthermore, human embryonic stem cells serve as the blueprint for human adult induced pluripotent stem cells, a complementary technology that our lab and many others on campus are working hard to advance.”
You can read the entire press release here.
Reporter Scott Bauer of the Associated press has been ahead of the media pack in reporting on this story. In reporting on today’s news conference in the Wisconsin State Journal, Bauer writes:
Embryonic stem cell researchers stepped away from their microscopes Tuesday to dispute gubernatorial candidate Scott’s Walker’s statements about their work and oppose the Republican’s positions.
Scientists at a news conference held in a lab at embryonic stem cell company Stemina never mentioned Walker’s name, but they said they wanted to set the record straight about the promise embryonic stem cells hold and what it would mean for Wisconsin to ban their work.
Walker told the anti-abortion group Pro-Life Wisconsin earlier this year that he supports banning embryonic stem cell research. But since filling out the group’s survey, Walker has tried to distance himself from his response, talking instead about how he would direct state money to research that involves adult stem cells and not embryonic.
Walker’s opponent Democrat Tom Barrett supports embryonic stem cell research and has tried to make their differences a campaign issue, running a television ad in which the mother of a boy with juvenile diabetes says Walker would stop research that could lead to a cure.
It is no secret that the ad Bauer references features my wife Heidi, who appears in her personal capacity and is not identified with Wisconsin Stem Cell Now.
A ban could force researchers to move to other, friendlier states, said Dr. David Gamm, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is using embryonic stem cells in research aimed at curing blindness.
And even though Wisconsin doesn’t directly fund embryonic stem cell research, a governor who blocks attempts to further the work or obtain future funding would put Wisconsin at a disadvantage in competition with states like California where it is actively promoted, said Dr. Tim Kamp, director of the university’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.
It would also hurt companies like Stemina, which is currently looking to hire two researchers, said Elizabeth Donley, the company’s chief executive officer. Stemina opened at the university’s research park in 2007, helped in part by a $1 million state grant for biotech companies, Donley said.
The company has created a test, developed with embryonic stem cell research, that helps screen drugs and chemicals for their potential to cause birth defects in pregnant women.
You can read the entire article here.
None of the information released today is particularly new. Readers of this blog, or anyone who has perused the information on this website or listened to our media interviews, have heard all of this information before. What is significant, however, is that the scientific community is standing up and saying “no more.” They have had it with people who try to politicize medical research.
As I said at the start, these dedicated researchers continue to inspire me. Now more than ever.