By Tom Still

MADISON – Once again, some Wisconsin legislators are pushing state restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research – restrictions that would effectively move beyond President Bush’s 2001 order and put Wisconsin’s homegrown researchers at a competitive disadvantage.


Rather than adding a layer of unnecessary regulation, state lawmakers should await guidance from two panels — one federal and the other international — that have recently announced separate efforts to reinforce ethical guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research.


There’s no need for Wisconsin to rush into regulation that could create an uneven playing field when a combination of federal and global guidelines could compel all researchers, from Wisconsin to Singapore; from California to the United Kingdom, to follow the same ethical path.


As the Legislature moves closer to its election-year adjournment, two bills designed to enhance Wisconsin’s competitiveness in biomedical research have bogged down over amendments that would prevent use of state funds for human embryonic stem cell research. One bill involves tax credits for all types of biotechnology companies; the second would provide support for the Biomedical Technology Alliance in Milwaukee, which is a consortium of the region’s leading medical research institutions.


It now seems unlikely either bill will pass in March because of the anti-stem cell amendments, which proponents claim are merely an extension of Bush’s Aug. 9, 2001, executive order limiting federal spending on human embryonic stem cell research. Actually, the order allows federal spending on then-existing lines that were (1) derived with the informed consent of the donors, (2) from excess embryos created solely for reproductive purposes, and (3) without any financial inducements to the donors.


To a “t,” that describes the stem cell lines created through the UW-Madison and its private, non-profit affiliates, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and WiCell. Wisconsin researchers have always used stem cell lines that met the 2001 order – so why impose another layer of regulation that could stymie state and even private investment?


That question is timely now that the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s leading scientific advisory board, has announced it will set up a committee to provide informal oversight over research with human embryonic stem cells. The new committee will build upon the Academy’s voluntary guidelines for stem cell research, which were released in April 2005. The new panel will serve as a standing body that will update the guidelines and resolve issues too difficult for local advisory panels.


In what should be comforting to those who question stem-cell research, the Academy’s committee will not include any researchers who are using human embryonic stem cells. It will also be privately financed, which reduces the possibility of meddling by either the White House or Congress.


This week, another review panel added international clout to the issue. Meeting in the United Kingdom, scientists from around the world devised a set of global guidelines to ensure the ethical practice of stem cell research. Researchers, ethicists and lawyers from 14 countries came together for the first time during a three-day conference in Cambridge to produce guidance by which they agreed to abide. 

The guidelines aim to prevent a repeat of the case of a South Korean cloning pioneer who was found to have falsified research. Dr Woo-Suk Hwang apologized and resigned from Seoul National University amid claims of serious malpractice.

Although the system cannot be officially enforced, it is hoped scientific journal editors will support and promote high standards, and that funding bodies will take adequate steps to ensure those they fund are carrying out their research in line with international guidance.

In comments to the British press, Dr. Ruth Faden of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., noted: “For the first time, stem cell investigators and ethicists have identified specific guidance for how science and society should respond in the face of conflicting national laws and values governing stem cell science.”

Stem cell research is taking place around the nation and around the world. A combination of federal rules and international guidelines, in combination with university-based review panels, are the best way to monitor ethical guidelines. Wisconsin should avoid the siren call of additional regulation that could damage our researchers’ ability to compete – and to save lives. 

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