WisBusiness: Stem cell pioneer ‘saddened’ by lawmakers’ research restrictions

By Brian E. Clark

UW-Madison researcher and embryonic stem cell pioneer James Thomson is expressing deep concern that Wisconsin will be left behind if the Legislature passes restrictive legislation limiting research on stem cells, saying he is “saddened and disappointed” by some recent developments.

In a letter to a legislator — first reported on the WisOpinion.com-hosted blog The Xoff Files — the usually private Thomson wrote that the state’s economy could be left behind.

Scientists elsewhere in the United State already view such attempts by conservatives with views ranging from “bewilderment to contempt,” he wrote.

“Restrictive legislation in the area of stem cell research will create a perception that this state is generally hostile to science. Technology companies will locate in other states, and top faculty candidates will go to other universities.”

In a frank exchange with Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, sponsor of a bill to restrict the research, Thomson said:

“I was born and grew up in the Midwest, but subsequently studied both on the east and west coasts. I therefore know first hand that there is a strong impression on both coasts that the middle of the country is an intellectual void.

“If a TV sitcom takes place in either L.A. or New York, and the writers want to introduce a character that is a well-meaning yokel, they often put a T-shirt on him with “Wisconsin” printed on the front to establish his character.

Thomson said Wisconsin legislators should be “absolutely clear:

“Any legislation that impacts basic science that is more restrictive than current federal legislation will only help put that T-shirt back on.

“Although people from the Midwest have gotten used to the misperceptions and are good at shrugging them off, in a competitive global economy, scientific talent is increasingly becoming a state’s most important resource”.

“It has been a great source of pride to me that the publicity surrounding human embryonic stem cells and its universal association with Wisconsin has helped to remove that T-shirt.”

Thomson also related the stem cell situation to Wisconsin’s slip in national dairy production rankings.

“A few years ago, California surpassed Wisconsin in dairy production. Now, although stem cell research is most strongly associated with Wisconsin, my own state legislature seems determined to make sure that stem cell research follows a similar trajectory. I just returned from a national stem cell meeting in San Francisco with over 2,200 stem cell researchers, and it is no accident that the organizers chose California over Wisconsin as their meeting site.

“Although I know stem cell research remains controversial in our state, I do still hope that our state legislature can find a way to help the research go forward and ultimately benefit the people of Wisconsin. Creating legislation that is more restrictive than federal regulations is not the way to do it.”

Thomson’s letter was prompted by a Friday e-mail to legislators from Kestell, after his cloning ban passed the Assembly 59-38 last week. His bill would ban therapeutic stem cell cloning, including therapeutic cloning for stem cell research. It would still need to pass the state Senate before heading to Gov. Jim Doyle’s desk. Doyle has repeatedly pledged to veto any bill restricting stem cell research.

Kestell said he is concerned university officials have attempted to stifle debate on stem cell research.

“I am disappointed that our own University has attempted to squash debate and confuse the facts with faulty and misleading testimony and heavy handed lobbying,” Kestell wrote in a letter to Thomson. “I am disappointed that the research community has apparently decided that the public has no role to play in an important policy decision.”

He also took on Thomson’s T-shirt reference:

“Dr. Thomson, I am not ashamed of Wisconsin or the basic values that have made this state great and I do not believe that abandoning those values to erase an imaginary T-shirt is a good bargain.”

The exchange began when Kestell sent lawmakers an e-mail urging them to read an online interview with Thomson at MSNBC. In that message, he said the interview “clearly shows that Dr. Thomson is an honorable man who has given great thought to the ethical questions surrounding his work. … Dr. Thomson understands the implications and also expresses a concern that has been recently denied by representatives of our own University, that once a cloned embryo is created for research purposes, it is virtually indistinguishable from any other embryo and could be implanted. … Dr. Thomson talks about separating the debate over cloning and other forms of stem cell research – This is exactly what AB 499 allows us to do.”

Thomson said he did not want his words to be used to promote a ban on stem cell research. Rather, he said he strongly supports using frozen embryos that would otherwise be destroyed.

“In my recent MSNBC interview I tried to give an honest assessment of the state of stem cell research. It troubles me that my words could be used to support a ban on a particular area of research that many scientists find promising.

“I merely attempted to point out that in going forward, separating the issue of using existing frozen embryos that would otherwise be discarded, from the issue of nuclear transfer or so-called therapeutic cloning makes public policy sense, as there is a remarkable degree of public consensus on the first issue, and considerable public disagreement on the second issue.

“However, banning an area of research is another matter entirely” he wrote.

In a response to Thomson’s letter, Kestell wrote to fellow legislators that he did not mean to imply that Thomson supported the cloning ban.

“I purposely did not excerpt only those parts of the interview that I agreed with in an effort to misuse his comments, but rather encouraged that the entire interview be read to help gain understanding of a complex issue,” he wrote.

“Since there have been various explanations given about what cloning is or is not, I believe that Dr. Thomson’s candid and honest depiction of the issue should not be overlooked. I still believe that everyone involved in the debate would benefit by reading the entire interview. While we can disagree on policy, we should agree to honor the truth.”