10 Mar Wisconsin stands to gain from Obama's stem cell reversal
MADISON – When President Barack Obama this morning announced an executive order lifting some restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, UW-Madison scientist James Thomson was there.
Thomson’s presence, along with several others in the state working in the field, illustrates how Wisconsin has had an impact on this still emerging field, and the promise of what could come as a result of the order.
Thomson, who pioneered embryonic stem cell research at his UW-Madison lab 11 years ago, called the action a “welcome milestone.”
“The decision will help restore America as a leader in this field and is a clear path out of a policy thicket that has slowed the pace of discovery for eight years,” Thomson stated. “It also removes a stigma that has discouraged many bright young people from embarking on careers in stem cell research.”
Thomson is director of regenerative biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. In 2007, he became an adjunct professor in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Late last year, he was one of three stem cell researchers awarded the 2008 Massry Prize, an honor that has proved a frequent precursor to the Nobel Prize. TIME magazine, named him one of 100 of the most influential people in the world last year.
“Research on embryonic stem cells remains critically important. We have many unanswered questions, and the only way to realize the full potential of embryonic stem cells and other types of stem cells is a level playing field and unfettered inquiry,” Thompson said.
Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) Managing Director Carl Gulbrandsen said to expect further commercialization of the technology as the worldwide market grows for products growing out of research in this field. WARF currently holds a number of patents for embryonic stem cell technologies.
“On the therapeutic side, we are seeing large pharmaceutical companies become more and more interested in accessing these technologies both for product development and drug development and potential therapies down the way,” Gulbrandsen said. “We’ve had a v successful licensing program going this past year.”
One of WARF’s biggest successes in this area is with Geron Corp. The California company is planning to launch the first human clinical trial involving human embryonic stem cells for a therapy aimed at helping those diagnosed with acute spinal cord injury.
Companies specializing in stem cell research saw stocks shoot up this morning following the news, including Geron which rose at one point by 35 percent.
Gulbrandsen said he hoped this would be good news, too, for the National Stem Cell Bank, and WiCell. He said discussions have been ongoing with the National Institues of Health about including additional stem cell lines.
But there’s still much work to be done before scientists have answers, and companies can bring therapies to market, about the full potential of stem cell research.
“We’ve got a long ways to go in some cases before the science yields answers. But this will hasten the time that we get there by removing some of these roadblocks,” said Tom Still executive director of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
In signing the order, Obama said science can now make up lost ground. The move is a reversal of limitations placed on funding for research on these cells enacted by former President George W. Bush in 2001, a policy that was thought by some to be based on ideology.
“Ultimately, I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No President can promise that. But I can promise that we will seek them — actively, responsibly, and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground. Not just by opening up this new front of research today, but by supporting promising research of all kinds, including groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells,” Obama said.
Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle applauded the decision, saying, “We are at the ground floor of a field of discovery that represents tremendous promise to improve and save lives. Lifting the restrictions on federal funding for this field is a decision I have long advocated and fully support.”
Gabriela Cezar, an assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder of Stemina Biomarker Discovery Inc., called today’s news a “transformative moment for scientists, patients and society as a whole” that opens the legal road to bring discoveries from bench to bedside.
“We have built the scientific pillars for stem cell research, and now we can fully expand it and deliver on all its possibilities, always, of course, with ethics, integrity and responsibility,” Cesar said. “This is not exclusively about delivering therapies though, as human embryonic stem cells can also teach us about causes of diseases, and can revolutionize the way we discover new drugs.”
Obama also indicated today interest in funding research using human pluripotent stem cells, those grown from skin and said to mimic human embryonic stem cells.
“Human-induced pluripotent stem cells — the transformed adult cells that seem to mimic the qualities of embryonic stem cells — would not have been possible without research on human embryonic stem cells.
Regarding the possibility of further federal regulation coming with the lifted restrictions, Gulbrandsen said, “That’s the $64,000 question.”
“I guess my expectation is that they’ll rely very heavily on National Academy of Sciences guidelines, and we do comply with those,” Gulbrandsen said.