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Forsberg: Funding uncertainty may hinder researcher enthusiasm for stem cells

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

UW-Madison researchers and other Wisconsin scientists may be so fed up with the controversy surrounding human embryonic stem cells that they switch to other, more stable research projects.

So says Erik Forsberg, head of WiCell, a private, non-profit subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation that creates, distributes and does research on stem cell lines.

Forsberg worries that top cell biologists might simply say “to heck with this, I’ll do something else."

Forsberg spoke to WisBusiness.com before an appeals court on Thursday lifted a temporary injunction barring the federal government from funding research involving human embryonic stem cell research.

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A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia granted a request from the Justice Department to stay an injunction issued Aug. 23 blocking the funding. The judges said the Obama administration could resume funding the research pending a full appeal of the case. Observers called the move a major victory for research supporters.

Previously U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, ruling in a lawsuit filed by two researchers working on alternatives to the cells, said the funding violated a federal rule that prohibits federal tax money from being used for research that involves the destruction of human embryos.

Forsberg said some stem cell scientists have already left the field.

“It has already happened over the years,” he said. “More scientists will step out because it this is an extraordinarily competitive area. If you can’t get funding for a period of time, or you are shut off suddenly, any gap in your efforts puts you at a disadvantage.”

And while WiCell could have lost a lot of business in coming months from researchers who might have lost funding from the federal government, its dealings with California universities and scientists are almost certain to grow, Forsberg said. That's because most of the Golden State’s human embryonic stem cell efforts are funded with state and private – not federal – dollars.

Forsberg – who has headed WiCell for nearly three years – criticized Lamberth’s Aug. 23 order temporarily stopping the Health and Human Services Department and the National Institutes of Health from funding or conducting human embryonic stem cell studies.

The judge cited the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment and said Congress had prohibited any research in which a human embryo was destroyed. In 1999, UW-Madison’s Jamie Thompson was the first scientist to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to become any cell in the body and could be used to cure a variety of crippling ailments and diseases.

He called Lamberth’s now-overturned injunction “definitely a backwards move, even more backwards than it was in the late '90s and early 2000s.”

Forsberg said earlier this week he believes that federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will eventually be restored, but the impact in the meantime could be devastating for some scientists.

“It is inevitable that this will be reversed, it’s just a matter of how much time,” he said. “But there are two impacts, the monetary impact and the loss of new and current research. Then there is also the psychological impact. People have taken so many hits area over the years. You have to have thick skin to work in this area.”

Forsberg noted that WiCell is doing a lot of work with induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which hold promise. The iPS cells are not controversial, either, because they are derived from adult cells and do not result in the destruction of an embryo. But he said researchers often study both at the same time to determine the usefulness of iPS cells.

“So this is a blow to other stem cell applications, too,” he said.

Forsberg said he was surprised by Lamberth’s ruling, though officials with the Interstate Alliance for Stem Cell Research had warned it might be coming.

“One of the attorneys kept on saying 'don’t dismiss this. It could be an issue.' And lo and behold, it became an issue.”

Forsberg said the solution is for a higher court to overturn Lamberth’s decision or for Congress to eliminate the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which was part of an appropriations bill passed 14 years ago.

“I’m not sure of how long the court or any other process would take,” he said. “I’ve read, though, that legislation might be introduced after summer recess in mid to late September. So a lot depends on how it is dealt with in Congress.”

Forsberg said foreign researchers and scientists in California who are not affected by the federal funding ban will move ahead with their studies.

He said he expects dealings with studies funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to pick up. CIRM was created in 2004 to disperse $3 billion in state grants for embryonic stem cell and other biomedical research.

“A survey of grantees (showed) 70 to 80 percent are being fully funded by CIRM and not the federal government. So they will leap ahead. We are working much more closely with California groups and have been traveling out there to help them with their projects.”

Forsberg said he hopes the state can come up with money to help Wisconsin stem cell scientists.

At a Tuesday press conference, UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin said the university could lose $7 million in federal funding this year. Gov. Jim Doyle, speaking at the same event, said the state will go to “any court that they let us into” to overturn Lamberth’s ruling.

Doyle also warned that other universities and companies around the globe will use this opening to pry away scientists from Wisconsin.

In the meantime, Forsberg said WiCell is working with the Waisman Institute on the UW-Madison campus to produce clinically usable lines that are produced under the highest quality manufacturing practices.

“They will move into the pipeline for potential clinical use,” he said. “Many will go to California disease research teams.”

The stem cells in use now are from some of the oldest lines derived in by Thomson from his early research.

“In fact, Geron Corp. (of Menlo Park, Calif.) is now doing the first human clinical trials using our stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries,” he said. Those trials will not be affected by Lamberth’s ruling because they are privately funded.

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