By Tom Still

MADISON – Erik Forsberg, the executive director of Wisconsin’s WiCell Research Institute, may soon be running the scientific equivalent of a homeless shelter.

If a recent court ruling forces some of Wisconsin’s stem-cell researchers to abandon their federally funded laboratories and equipment, those researchers may find temporary quarters in WiCell’s research center near the UW-Madison campus. Because the WiCell lab isn’t backed by federal dollars, it could serve as a safe harbor for researchers whose labs run short on money.

“We’re debating what we can do if this legal situation is prolonged, but we can be a bridge for a period of time for some people,” Forsberg said. “We can be a stop-gap solution for some, for a while.”

Uncertainty has returned to the field of human embryonic stem-cell research, which has lived most of its short history in a stop-and-start environment uncharacteristic of almost anything else in science. The latest twist came in late August when U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth issued a temporary injunction blocking the federal government from implementing National Institutes of Health guidelines governing embryonic stem cell research.

The injunction, which is being appealed, puts at risk more hundreds of research projects nationally – including many in Wisconsin, where UW-Madison researcher James Thomson was the first in the world to keep embryonic stem cells alive and unchanged indefinitely.

The ruling came after adult stem cell researchers and other plaintiffs protested President Obama’s 2009 order lifting federal funding restrictions. The judge concluded that federal funding for embryonic stem cell research violates a 1996 law that prohibits use of federal money for research in which an embryo is destroyed. The ruling drew sharp dissent.

“The injunction threatens to stop progress in one of the most encouraging areas of biomedical research, just as scientists are gaining momentum – and squander the investment we have already made,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “(The ruling) could cause irreparable damage and delay potential breakthroughs to improve care for people living with serious diseases and conditions such as spinal cord injury, diabetes or Parkinson’s disease.”

The NIH director also disputed the plaintiffs’ claim – accepted by the judge – that more federal funding for embryonic stem cell research means less money for adult stem cell work. Collins confirmed that NIH still funds about three times as much adult stem cell research as it does research with embryos.

Opponents say the ruling means scientists should go back to using adult stem cells, which have been researched since the mid-1960s, or speed the development of reprogrammed adult cells that have been genetically engineered to revert to an embryonic form.

Science doesn’t work well by rolling back the clock. Adult stem-cell research has gotten a second wind due to breakthroughs with embryonic stem cells, and the reprogrammed adult cells (called “induced pluripotent” stem cells) have yet to prove as stable or as pliable as embryonic stem cells. It may take more years of work to make the induced pluripotent stem cells work like embryonic cells, if it can ever be done at all.

“The decision is a deplorable brake on all stem-cell research,” said Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “Many discoveries with other cell types, notably the so-called reprogrammed iPS cells, would not happen without ongoing research in human embryonic stem cells.”

Expect California’s CIRM, which has already spent $1 billion on stem-cell research and is poised to spend $243 million more, to recruit researchers who may lose federal funding and whose states don’t offer state support.

“For now, the damage is mostly psychological,” said Forsberg of the court ruling, “but a lot depends on how long it takes for a reversal. We live in a competitive world, and if others see an advantage because of what’s happening in the federal courts, they’ll push ahead.”

The federal court ruling hurts researchers, who are once again mired in uncertainty. It hurts patients, who are losing time in the race for treatments and cures. It hurts states such as Wisconsin, which could see its researchers lured away by other nations or California. And, strangely enough, it hurts opponents, who wrongly believe adult stem cell research and iPS research can move ahead without human embryonic stem cells for side-by-side comparisons.

Let’s hope the on-again, off-again world of stem cell research soon reverts to on again – and stays there.

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