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Traveling stem cell show continues state tour

Madison, Wis. - A kind of traveling road show is making its way around Wisconsin to educate people about one of the most controversial areas of scientific research - embryonic stem cell research - and its presenters believe even the skeptics are walking away a little less skeptical.

The presentations by Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, and Sue Carlson, director of operations for the WiCell Research Institute, are being made on behalf of the Wisconsin Edge, an informal confederation of businesses, economic development organizations, and patient advocacy and healthcare groups.

The confederation is a big believer in the potential scientific and economic benefits of stem cell research.

Thus far, Still and Carlson have spoken to 15 organizations, and plan to address 30 more in sessions that have yet to be scheduled. Still believes the audiences have come away with a better understanding of stem cell research, embryonic and adult, but the public education campaign is tempered with a sense of realism.

“We make sure it's a message of hope, not hype,” Still said. “We have to be sure to say that it's going to take time for some of those benefits to arrive. They don't need to think that stem cell research will lead to organ regeneration tomorrow.”
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The pitch

In particular, those who attend are educated with a power point presentation about the potential scientific and economic benefits of research with embryonic stem cells, which can become any of the 220 tissue types in the human body.

Carlson cites the potential of embryonic stem cells to provide research tools for drug discovery, to expand knowledge of disease processes, and to broaden understanding of birth defects like Down Syndrome. More ambitious avenues of scientificresearch would come later.

“Things like transplantation therapies are way down the road because we have to understand this other stuff first,” she said.

While the research is still in its infancy, Still said the sale of stem cell products worldwide reached $16.4 million in 2006, it's expected to more than double to $35 million in 2007, and then experience 50 percent annual growth rates in subsequent years.

Wisconsin will benefit, Still said, because it holds stem cell patents, it will derive licensing income from those patents, and a number of stem cell companies will set up here. (The stem cell patents, held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, are being challenged before the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Still notes that stem cell research has brought millions of dollars in private and federal grants to Wisconsin, creating jobs and launching high-tech companies.

Misinformation

The complexity of stem cell research makes it difficult to explain in a television or radio sound bite, and some people come to the sessions with misinformation. Still said the biggest misconception is that stem cells are derived from embryos that are the result of abortions, which is never the case.

He said the stem cells used by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers have been extracted from five-day-old embryos - the blastocyct stage - which are donated by couples who have surplus eggs left over from the in-vitro fertilization process. These are embryos that otherwise would be discarded and left to die.

Another misconception is that embryos are being destroyed in great numbers in order to derive stem cells. Carlson points out that only seven embryos have been used thus far in UW-Madison's stem cell research - five that researcher James Thomson used when he developed a method of deriving stem cells from embryos, and two more since. One reason for this is that embryonic stem cells have the ability to reproduce indefinitely in culture, making it possible to obtain large amounts for scientific study.

Another factor, Carlson said, is that the university has developed a cell culture system in which stem cell lines can be grown without animal contamination.

Backers of research using adult stem cells point to more than 70 therapies that have resulted from this type of research. Noting that embryonic stem cell research has yet to produce a therapy, they cite this as a justification for blocking federal funding beyond existing lines.

Carlson counters by arguing that embryonic stem cell research still is a young technology, and adult stem cell research had not produced any therapies at the same stage.

Dissenting view

Carlson said some people have come to the presentations with their own agendas, but both presenters said they have been well received. Most of the programs have been conducted before Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs whose members simply were eager to learn more.

William Bourbonnais, past president and member of the Rotary Club Green Bay West, is a stem cell skeptic who attended a recent program. He acknowledges that he was more skeptical about embryonic stem cell research before the March 20 presentation, but his conservative nature still distrusts projects that are funded more by the government than by private enterprise.

Bourbonnais felt the presenters did a balanced job, but some of his skepticism remains. “A lot of this [research] is being funded by government at this stage, and that gives me pause,” he said. “There is not a high assurance of the benefits. If there were, venture capital would be easier to come by.”

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