07 Oct Thomson lends perspective to stem cell expectations
Madison, Wis. – When scientists look back at this early period in human embryonic stem cell discovery, they might regret the hype surrounding this controversial research, but they won’t be able to accuse the man who derived stem cells from embryos of contributing to it.
Outlining some of the remaining challenges for stem cell researchers, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor James Thomson took the opportunity to inject some realism into the stem cell expectations game before UW-educated executives at a CEO Summit convened by John Morgridge, a UW graduate and the chairman and former CEO of Cisco Systems.
Stem cell hype is coming from a variety of sources, and it’s creating expectations of near-term cures or treatments for debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. While Thomson remains enthusiastic about the potential of stem cell research, he cautioned that its benefits will take time to realize, and he said that perhaps the biggest bang will come in ways that don’t make the front pages of newspapers.
Noting that in retrospect, expectations for gene therapy have been oversold -breakthroughs have taken longer than many predicted – Thomson suggested that the same could be said of human embryonic stem cell research.
One of the promising areas of the research lies in the possibility of stem cell based transplantation therapy, but several obstacles remain. Perhaps the most daunting is preventing the process that originally kills cells, which he said could take years if not decades.
“I don’t want to sound pessimistic,” Thomson said. “This is all doable. It’s just not going to happen overnight.”
Thomson serves as the scientific director for the UW’s WiCell Research Institute, and he is a co-founder of the drug-screening company Cellular Dynamics International. His partners in that venture are fellow UW-Madison researchers Craig January and Timothy Kamp.
The company plans to introduce a test for drug candidates for heart toxicity, and hopes to do limited cardiac toxic testing in human cardio myocytes – beating heart cells – in the first quarter of next year.
“It’s Craig January’s prior work,” Thomson said. “Craig offers the gold standard for this particular cardiac test, and he’s well respected throughout the drug industry, and it gives us immediate access to the market we’re going to need for human embryonic stem cell testing.”
Thomson believes the public debate on stem cells has shifted in favor of human embryonic stem cell research. Asked about the prospects of the mid-term elections producing a veto-proof majority for House Resolution 810, a bill that would make available new federal funding for stem cell research, he took a wait-and-see approach.
“I can’t say,” he said. “I’ll just wait until November and see what happens. I would say that clearly this work caused a fair amount of social controversy. It was well examined by a lot of different people, and it’s broadly supported by the American public now.
“Politicians in Washington realize that, and whether it’s this January or three years from now, the legislation will change.”
One of the elected representatives who consistently has opposed H.R. 810 is Congressman Mark Green, who is challenging Doyle, a supporter of embryonic stem cell research, in the 2006 gubernatorial race. Asked what concerns him most about Green, who has called for $25 million in state support for stem cell research that does not result in the destruction of embryos, Thomson deflected the question.
“I so much try to stay out of local politics, but it’s hard to do because the current governor has been very supportive of us,” he said. “All I would say is, as much as this is important to people, it’s worthwhile looking at the track records of both individuals and voting accordingly.”
Thomson also said he doesn’t worry that a challenge to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s stem cell patents will result in their being overturned or altered. That, he suggested, is WARF’s concern. “So Carl [Gulbrandsen, WARF’s managing director], his job is to get ulcers over that,” Thomson said. “My job is to do good science.”
Gathering of leaders
Thomson and two other prominent UW-Madison scientists, avian flu researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Internet security researcher Paul Barford, spoke before a gathering of about 30 executive leaders with UW educations. Morgridge convened the meeting to emphasize the university’s prowess at producing leaders of major public companies – it has turned out more Standard & Poor’s 500 CEOs than any other university – and to re-engage them in the school. In attendance were the likes of Stephen Bennett, president and CEO of Intuit, the developer of Quickbooks and Quicken, and Keith Nosbusch, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation.
Another motivation was to remind graduates that amid news of controversial professors and occasionally unruly students, their alma mater is developing contributions to science and business. “I think that, at times, we focus so specifically on those minor issues that we lose sight of the real value of the total institution,” Morgridge said.
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• Green unveils $25 million stem cell plan
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• Tom Still: Fact and friction: Putting election-year stem cell claims under the microscope
• Bush vetoes stem cell research bill
• A brief timeline of the stem cell debate