By Tom Still
What if Wisconsin has produced a future Nobel Prize winner who might not be welcomed in his own state?
I’ve been thinking about that surreal possibility since the recent announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine, which will go to the British scientist who pioneered in vitro fertilization, and the resurgent political debate in Wisconsin over human embryonic stem cell research, a trail blazed by UW-Madison scientist James Thomson.
The two are connected in some fundamental ways. The work of Robert Edwards, the British biologist who developed the procedure that led to the birth of the world’s first “test-tube” baby in 1978, was a precursor to human embryonic stem cell breakthroughs nearly 20 years later. Edwards demonstrated to most skeptics – although many still exist – that just because a technology can be abused, it doesn’t mean it will be abused.
In fact, for all the dire predictions of artificial wombs and “baby farms,” three decades of in vitro fertilization continue to produce results that bring smiles to most faces. To the relief and joy of infertile couples, nearly 4 million IVF babies have been conceived worldwide since the birth of Louise Brown – now a 32-year-old British postal worker.
The IVF revolution has advanced reproductive science and regenerative medicine by shedding light on genetic engineering, the cause of birth defects and more. Although it was an unplanned result, IVF has also provided the source of cells used in human embryonic stem cell research.
Here’s how: One side-effect of IVF is the occasional production of more than one fertilized embryo. Sometimes, couples choose to implant them all. Sometimes, those embryos are frozen and preserved for later use. A minuscule number are “adopted.” Most are quickly discarded, which is one reason why some opponents of IVF still question the ethics of the procedure to this day.
It was from those embryos destined to be discarded that researchers such as Wisconsin’s Thomson found cells suitable for research. With full permission from the couples involved, a tiny handful of those embryos yielded the first stem cells to be kept in an unchanging state. Thomson found a way to suspend in time these universal building blocks of the human body. If stem cells are prevented from changing into heart, liver or one of more than 200 other cells, they remain in a condition that allows further study.
More time to work with stem cells means scientists can search for better diagnostics and cures, test new drugs with greater accuracy and less toxicity, and unlock the secrets of some basic human biology. It is a science that promises to change the practice of medicine.
Some opponents of human embryonic stem cell research still insist research cells are derived from aborted fetuses or later-stage embryos. That’s not true. In fact, it’s impossible. Embryonic stem cells begin the process of changing into “adult” cells inside of two weeks. Only those cells that have yet to start the journey toward becoming a human can be used for research.
Perhaps the opponents of human embryonic stem cell research don’t understand that. More likely they do, and they still reject the science for the same ethical reasons some people still object to in vitro fertilization. Either way, it’s a debate that has crept back into the political domain – just in time for Wisconsin’s Nov. 2 elections.
Some candidates for state office say they want to eliminate state funding for embryonic stem cell research. The truth of the matter is that Wisconsin doesn’t spend much on stem cell research; it’s mainly financed through federal and private sources. But the signal sent by such a move would send a troubling message: Don’t bother doing cutting-edge science in Wisconsin.
That brings me back to Thomson and others who are conducting stem-cell research in Wisconsin, moving closer to treatments for conditions ranging from heart disease to eye disorders to diabetes. They could just as easily do that research in another state where their work is at least appreciated, if not partially financed.
In some future year, when the list of Nobel Prize winners is announced, don’t be surprised to see the name of Dr. James Thomson on the list. But if the state political debate over human embryonic stem-cell research continues down its current path, don’t be shocked if, by then, Thomson and other talented Wisconsin scientists like him are living and working in California.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.