Tom Still column No. 43-06
“Fact and friction: Putting election-year stem cell claims under the microscope”
Contact: 608-695-7557

By Tom Still

MADISON – So, it has come to this: A degree in molecular biology will be required of anyone wishing to vote in Wisconsin’s Nov. 7 elections.

Or perhaps it only seems so in light of 2006 campaign year claims and counter-claims swirling around the “wedge issue” of human embryonic stem cell research. To assist those who won’t complete their doctoral degree by fall, here are a few frequently asked questions based on those frequently made charges.

First, some background: Human embryonic stem cells are the building blocks of life; all organs and tissues “stem” from these basic cells. A Wisconsin researcher, Dr. James Thomson, was the first in the world to figure out how to keep human embryonic stem cells alive and in an unchanged state – meaning, they weren’t transforming themselves into hearts, livers and kidneys. Many scientists believe studying these cells will lead to more effective drugs and, someday, treatments for chronic diseases. All stem cells used by Wisconsin researchers come from donated embryos that otherwise would have been thrown away by fertility clinics.

Gov. Jim Doyle says U.S. Rep. Mark Green, his Republican opponent, voted to “outlaw” human embryonic stem cell research. Is that true?

Technically, it’s not true. There haven’t been votes on bills to “outlaw” human embryonic stem cell research because Congress knows it cannot halt private efforts. That would be like a medical research version of Prohibition, and probably just as unenforceable.

There’s long-term truth in what Doyle says, however. Human embryonic stem cell research in the United States will ultimately wither away without federal funding. Green has voted to ban federal funding on all but a relative handful of older human ES lines; most recently, he voted to uphold President Bush’s veto of a bill that would have allowed federal investment in new lines.

Basic scientific research in the United States rarely occurs without federal funding; venture capitalists and angel investors won’t fund something that is years from the market. A few private foundations are investing in stem cell research, and some states are doing so, directly or indirectly. But that’s not enough to keep pace with the rest of the world.

Green says research using adult stem cells, stem cells derived from placentas and stem cells from umbilical cords has led to 72 different treatments, while embryonic stem cell research has yet to produce any treatments. True or false?

The first half of the claim is mostly false. Dr. David Prentice, a scientist with the Family Research Council, is the “expert source” often cited by opponents of human embryonic stem cell research. He is an adviser to U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, one of the most vehement opponents of human ES research. Prentice often refers to scientific papers that he says prove the value of adult stem cells as treatments for at least 65 diseases.

In a letter to “Science,” a peer-reviewed journal, three scientists went through Prentice’s footnoted documentation and concluded most of his examples are wrong. In fact, the scientists said, only nine diseases have been proved to respond to treatment with adult stem cells.

To date, human embryonic stem cell research has not produced a “cure” for anything. But that’s a bit like expecting a sixth-grader to have a full-time job. Research on human ES cells only began in 1998 and has been held back by federal policies; research on other stem cells has taken place for 40 years.
The vast majority of scientists say it’s not a question of “either” human embryonic stem cell research “or” adult stem cell research, but a matter of conducting both and comparing notes.

Mark Green says he does not believe “anyone should be allowed to clone a human being… Jim Doyle does.” Is it true that Doyle wants to clone a person – perhaps even a campaign contributor?

The answer depends on your personal view of when human life begins. Doyle has said repeatedly he would sign a bill to ban human cloning, so it’s silly to suggest he aspires to create a mini-Frankenstein. But he supports what is called “therapeutic cloning,” which is the asexual reproduction of stem cells to make other stem cells for research purposes.

Green and others says therapeutic cloning is tantamount to cloning a human being if you believe an embryo is already a human being. Others say an embryo cannot become a human being until it’s implanted in a woman’s womb.

Thankfully, science has yet to figure out how to make babies outside the womb.
Green is correct, however, that the starting points for therapeutic cloning and human cloning (if such a despicable act were possible) are the same. But the question may be moot: No scientist in Wisconsin engages in therapeutic cloning, and none are likely to do so for a combination of ethical and economic reasons.
With the election three months away, expect more claims and counterclaims cast in stark black-and-white terms. However, voters won’t need a degree in genetics to know there’s more shades of gray to this issue than the stem cell spin doctors would have you believe.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.