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- Undeterred by a small group of anti-abortion protestors, a crowd of more than 450 people packed the Madison Overture Center Monday night to hear a speech by University of Wisconsin-Madison
Professor James Thomson, who used the forum to outline UW's stem cell research efforts.
Thomson, a professor of anatomy at the UW-Medical School, made international headlines in 1998 when he announced he had successfully isolated human embryonic stem cells. Discovering those cells, which mimic other cells in the body, put Thomson on the cover of TIME Magazine and led Christopher Reeve to declare him a "real-life Superman."
Thomson had no desire to be looked at as a Superman during his speech, however. Rather, he wanted to cut through some of the hype around his discoveries and get into what was actually possible with the technology.
Stem cells do possess terrific potential, Thomson said, as they are the only cells that can replicate at a noticeable level. While that ability only lasts for a brief period of time in the embryo's development before they are permanently assigned to cell structures, they can be removed and kept in a contained environment where they lose none of their abilities.
"The bottom line is that they possess all the appropriate machinery ... and they'll divide without limit," Thomson said.
That ability to divide and match up with other cells can be potentially useful in treating serious diseases where the existing cures are far from reliable. Thomson cited as an example conditions like leukemia and lymphoma that require bone marrow transplants, where only one third of patients are able to get a perfect genetic match.
Stem cells could help drive an alternative treatment for these conditions, Thomson said, although it will require at least a decade more of research. "We haven't gotten to the point where a stem cell can cure leukemia, but I think it's possible in the not too distant future."
Clinical treatments are some of the more obvious uses, but another use that could be more important in the long run is using the stem cells to create more accurate models for studying normal cells. Since the cells are so easily convertible, scientists can place them in a tissue culture and analyze them as they change, studying what type of cell they become and how they acquire those traits.
"We want to know how it makes these decisions," Thomson said.
More analysis is necessary, Thomson said, since stem cells should not be seen as the cure-all based only on potential. The causes of diseases have to be known before the stem cells are applied, as their fast replication could lead to acceleration of symptoms or growth of cancer cells in a threatened area.
Thomson credited several of his co-workers at UW-Madison for their research into stem cells, such as Tim Kamp's research on heart tissue, Su-Chun Zhang's work on neurological stem cells and Jon Odorico's study of pancreatic islet cells in juvenile onset diabetes. Their research, he said, helps broaden understanding of stem cells and develop better models for testing.
"I think the legacy of these cells is more basic science - it gives us a window to all areas of the human body," Thomson said.
Thomson's talk was the first in this year's "Academy Evening" lectures sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.