WisBusiness: Gulbrandsen says UW stem cell researchers more comfortable with current Legislature

By Brian E. Clark

UW-Madison has been at the center of the “perfect storm” surrounding human embryonic stem cell research, but the sailing should be smoother for university scientists – at least for the next few years.

That was the thrust of a talk given Friday by Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and director of the WiCell Research Institute.

Gulbrandsen gave the introductory remarks for the symposium, which was dubbed “The Potential of Stem Cells: Public Policy Issues Beyond the Microscope.” More than 100 people attended the conference, ranging from undergraduates to legislators to retired scientists.

The symposium was sponsored by the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison and WiCell. WARF holds the broad patent covering the technology used to derive human embryonic stem cells and maintains control over five of the embryonic stem cell lines that are approved for use in federally funded research.

Gulbrandsen gave what he called the “30,000-foot perspective” over the controversies surrounding stem cell research. He proudly noted that it was UW-Madison’s James Thomson who first isolated and reproduced human embryonic stem cells in 1997, following 17 years of dogged research.

Today, UW-Madison and WiCell have more than 80 researchers working on various projects using human embryonic stem cells.

The WiCell director said the stem cells, were are created by removing the inner mass from five-to-seven day old embryos, are apparently “immortal” and can give rise to every cell type in the body. They also hold the potential for becoming an unlimited source of cells for transplantation therapies and may one day lead to cures for ailments such as Parkinson’s disease and juvenile diabetes.

Several stem cells companies have already started in Madison. One, founded in part by Thomosn, would use stem cells to test heart drug toxicity, while another hopes to use embryonic stem cells as a source of “biomarkers” for preclinical safety testing of pharmaceutical compounds and disease diagnostics.

Because the embryos are killed during the procedure, pro-life forces have lobbied hard against embryonic stem cell research. And in the last session, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill that would have made some work on the cells a felony. Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the legislation.

Gulbrandsen said Thomson and others follow ethical guidelines and only use excess embryos that would be discarded from fertilization clinics. The embryos could not be created for purposes of research and no payment was made to donors.

Still, he said, the research became highly politicized and was a main subject of debate in the recent state and national elections. Some prominent scientists said they might leave the state if restrictions were placed on their research.

When the dust settled, Gov. Doyle – an embryonic stem cell backer – was reelected over his conservative opponent, Rep. Mark Green, and pro-stem cell research Democrats gained control in the state Senate.

“In addition, the Assembly was mitigated somewhat,” Gulbrandsen said. “So we feel are more comfortable.”

Gulbrandsen said he wished more federal dollars were available for human embryonic stem cell research.

“But until 2009, the federal situation will stay the same,” he predicted, noting that President Bush had vetoed a bill passed by both the U.S. House and Senate to rescind federal stem cell restrictions.

The symposium drew J.A. “Doc” Hines, (R-Oxford), chairman of the Public Health Committee in the Assembly. The long-time veterinarian said he came to “learn about what’s going on in research here in Wisconsin.”

Though he said he is “vehemently opposed” to destroying embryos, he called the scientific work at UW-Madison “truly remarkable” and said he hopes researchers will be able to one day extract human embryonic stem cells from umbilical cords and embryonic fluid.

State Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) also attended the conference. “Human embryonic stem cell research has the potential to help come up with cures for diseases that confound the medical community,” he said.

“Wisconsin is in the forefront of this field and while I understand that there are ethical challenges, I strongly support continued research,” he said.