By Brian E. Clark
Wisconsin scientists and start-up companies should continue to use human embryonic stem cells – and their noncontroversial counterparts – in ongoing research because they hold great promise for treating disease and injury, two panelists said Wednesday at the Early Stage Symposium.
But Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, said that use of stem cells is immoral and should end because it results in the destruction of embryos, “members of the human family.”
Lyons, a non-scientist, also argued that concerns over huge federal deficits will lead to de-funding of embryonic stem cell research. But she said the issue may one day be moot because adult stem cells and so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are more promising.
The session was dubbed “On again, off again: The unpredictable nature of human embryonic stem cell research.”
Tim Kamp, a UW-Madison cardiologist and top stem cell researcher, called some of Lyon’s statements ill-informed, relying on anecdotes rather than solid science.
Michael Falk, chief counsel for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation – which has licensed human embryonic stem cell technology – backed Kamp and said stem cell companies are creating jobs in Wisconsin.
Though he agreed with Lyons that adult and iPS cells hold potential, he said it would be a mistake to stop using embryonic stem cells. And he said UW-Madison researchers should be proud of their work to treat illness through the use of cells derived from human embryos.
“We see companies that are interested in both iPS and human embryonic stem cells,” he said. “It would be short-sighted and disappointing if we gave up the advantage of working with both.”
Lyons said the potential use of human embryonic stem cells in therapies for diseases such as Parkinson’s — which afflicts her husband — has been “hyped” ever since the cells were isolated by UW-Madison researcher James Thomson in 1998.
Falk and Kamp, however, reminded her that it can easily take a decade for drugs to be developed and that tests on spinal cord and blindness therapies derived from embryonic stem cells are now being conducted.
“We are a world leader in this field,” Falk said. “It is terrific for Wisconsin to be part of creating life-saving technologies. But we’re probably not going to see results for five years.”
The dust-up between Lyons, Kamp and Falk was one of the highlights of the first day of the Early Stage Symposium, which drew an estimated 450 people and 24 start-up companies to the Monona Terrace Convention Center. It will continue through 2 p.m. today.
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said he hopes the symposium could help nascent Badger State firms get financing and ultimately boost employment.
“Study after study has shown that virtually all new jobs are created by companies five years old or younger,” he said. “But Wisconsin has not done as good a job as most states in creating start-ups. If we can turn the corner on company creation, Wisconsin’s economy will create more jobs.”
On the subject of stem cells, Still said it is too early to predict what impact the election of Scott Walker – an opponent of human embryonic stem cell research – as governor will have for Wisconsin.
“Much of the activity around human embryonic stem cells in Wisconsin is related to federal and private dollars versus state dollars,” Still said.
Earlier this year, Walker told a pro-life group he would sign a bill banning embryonic stem cell research. Later in the campaign, however, he refused to say if would support an outright ban.
Kamp said a judge’s August ruling that temporarily stopped federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research had negatively affected experiments that need to be planned far in advance.
“Researchers are nervous,” he said. “iPS cells are extremely promising, but we are in danger of losing the gold standard – human embryonic stem cells – that we use to compare iPS cells.”
Kamp and Falk said they both believe Judge Royce Lamberth’s ruling will be overturned. But Kamp said the political uncertainty in Wisconsin could drive some scientists to states that support research in human embryonic stem cell research.
California, for example, passed a $3 billion bond several years ago largely to support human embryonic stem cell research because of efforts by patient advocacy groups.
“If companies and faculty sense that there is an adverse climate in Wisconsin, they might consider looking elsewhere in other states,” said Kamp. “And other countries have vigorous programs that could leave us behind.”