WisBusiness: Tech leaders disappointed with Assembly stem cell vote

By Brian E. Clark

Wisconsin political, business and science leaders who have pushed the state’s nascent biotech industry reacted with dismay Wednesday to a vote by the Assembly Tuesday night that would bar companies doing research on new stem cell lines from applying for research and development tax credits.

The amendment was authored by Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake. It passed the Assembly on a 59-36 vote and was sent to Senate. It was part of a package aimed at improving the state’s business climate.

Kestell called the amendment a compromise and said it was aimed at preventing human cloning or creating new embryonic stem cell lines in Wisconsin.

Many conservatives are opposed to using human embryos for stem cell research because they contend extracting stem cells from them destroys human life.

“The amendment was good and necessary because it lays down guidelines,” he said. “It is not a negative thing. People are overreacting.”

Gov. Jim Doyle, who is opposed to human cloning, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the Republican amendment.

He promised to veto any bill that restricts stem cell research or makes grants less accessible to biotech companies that work with stem cells.

Doyle said the research and development grant bill had been hijacked by “extremists” in the Legislature.

“Allowing our scientists to search for cures to the world’s most deadly diseases is not about being liberal or conservative – it’s about being compassionate,” he said.

Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park and a former top advisor to Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said he was frustrated by the Assembly vote. UW-Madison stem cell pioneer Jamie Thomson’s new company is in the park, as are many other high-tech companies.

“I’m disappointed by the Assembly action, though I’m not sure how much impact it will have on companies,” said Bugher, who was head of the Department of Administration and revenue secretary during Thompson’s tenure.

“This sends a chilling ‘in your face’ message to science and research-based companies that they will be treated differently,” he said.

“And this is from the Republican party, which is allegedly the ‘jobs’ party,” he said.

Bugher said he believes Assembly Republicans will continue to make gestures catered to appeal to groups that oppose stem cell research.

“It’s only the beginning, I’m afraid,” he said.

Bugher said Thompson was a conservative Republican who was a strong backer of stem cell research because he saw its potential for discovering disease therapies.

“He welcomed the potential for the science and for the economic development potential,” Bugher said. “And he was not intimidated by the right to life groups.”

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, called the vote backward.

“The Legislature needs to decide if Wisconsin is going to be a competitor in human embryonic stem cell research or not,” he said.

Still noted that California will invest $3 billion in stem cell research over the next decade.

“We just announced here in Wisconsin the creation of a new company (Cellular Dynamics International) that will be led by Dr. Jamie Thomson and other researchers from UW-Madison who are the top stem cell scientists in the world.

“And the first reaction by a public body is to pull back from that kind of science and technology transfer. What are they thinking?”

Andy Cohn, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, called the vote a step “in absolutely the wrong direction.”

WARF controls patents produced by UW-Madison scientists and inventors and is involved in trying to help start-up technology companies in Wisconsin.

“States all over the country are trying to attract stem cell business,” he said.

“We have the leading scientists in the world in this area and the Assembly just slapped them in the face. We need to do everything we can to keep those scientists here and this does just the opposite.”

Cohn said he hopes the state Senate will strip the amendment from the bill.

Tom Hefty, co-chair of the governor’s Economic Growth Council, said he believes stem cell research has an important role in the state’s emerging biotech economy.

“It was supported by former Gov. Tommy Thompson and on a limited basis by the Bush administration,” he said. “It would be unfortunate if Wisconsin went in the opposite direction.”