23 May Wisconsin aims to keep up in changing stem-cell world
Madison, Wis. – Recent developments in Washington and Korea could have a lasting impact on Wisconsin’s stem cell community, putting more roadblocks in scientists’ search for funding.
Following a successful effort by South Korean scientists to create “patient-specific” embryonic-stem-cell lines from the DNA of injured patients, President Bush has renewed his opposition to legislation that would ease funding restrictions on stem-cell research in the United States. Bush has promised to veto a new bill being debated by the Senate, which would allow federal dollars to fund work with newly created embryonic stem cell lines.
Steven Clark, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School, said that while the scientific developments are encouraging to researchers, the publicity creates a great deal of opposition to cloning – opposition which politicians could use to get cloning for any purpose outlawed.
There is a large backlash over stem cells since they are taken from human embryos at fertility clinics, destroying the embryo in the process. Researchers argue that the cells have tremendous potential for curing conditions like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, while religious and moral groups see the process as ethically wrong.
“It’s a bidding war and a legislative war, federal money vs. private money,” Clark said of the conflict.
Wisconsin as a state has long stood on the side of stem cell research in these wars. A press release by Governor Jim Doyle on Monday said that the governor believes in the cells’ prospects and supports the passing of the new bill. Doyle has also sponsored the creation of a multimillion dollar research center on the UW-Madison campus to advance biotechnology work.
“There’s no question about the tremendous potential of stem cell research to bring hope to our families and good-paying jobs to our communities,” Doyle said in the release.
Voters in Wisconsin may be on the governor’s side. A recent poll conducted by Cures for Tomorrow, a pro-stem cell organization in Wisconsin, showed that of 500 polled Wisconsinites, 69 percent supported stem-cell research in the state and 59 percent said the state should provide more funding. 41 percent had strong support for continued research.
“There’s a ton of research going on in Madison, and the voters in the state are very interested in the topic,” said Jim Burton, senior project director at Public Opinion Strategies.
Clark said that while this support is encouraging to scientists, the lack of funding makes it more of a gesture than anything else. Compared to California’s Proposition 71, which opened up $3 billion in state funds for stem cell research, Wisconsin doesn’t have the strength of investments that keep scientists working.
“The Discovery Institute is helpful, but it’s just a building,” Clark said of UW-Madison’s future research center. “Buildings are nice but you need the money to do the research inside the building.”
Clark, who has researched leukemia in bone marrow for the last 20 years, said that most of his funding comes from the National Institutes of Health and is limited under the current laws. If he wanted to expand his research into stem cells he would be unable to use his grants and would need to build and equip a completely new lab.
This lack of federal funding forces researchers to go to outside sources, which is often a problem in Wisconsin. Compared to universities like Stanford and Harvard, Wisconsin does not command a large body of private investors, limiting freedom at universities for new avenues of research.
“In the current climate, having non-federal money to expand the scope of research would attract scientists,” Clark said.
Clark said that Wisconsin – and America as a whole – has lost some ground to China and Korea and needs to remove restrictions to keep going. He said if the new bill passes it would be a tremendous boost for research into disorders such as Down’s syndrome, a benefit Clark says would outweigh any potential competition with other universities.
“We can still do research with the existing cell lines, but moving into developmental research will be hindered,” Clark said. “For the future [the federal ban] will affect the status quo.”