By Tom Still

MADISON – Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has drawn a thoughtful ethical line with his decision to support one type of human embryonic stem cell research in his state and to oppose another. Although the distinction made by Romney was largely lost in news coverage of his announcement, it could define a more constructive debate over stem cell research in Wisconsin and nationwide.

In fact, if Romney’s position became law in Wisconsin today, it wouldn’t stop any current research – nor would it preclude any human embryonic stem cell work being planned by researchers. It could, however, create a comfort zone for people who are worried about ethical problems posed by some types of stem cell research.

Human embryonic stem cells are the building blocks for all other cells, tissues, bones and organs in our bodies. They evolve rapidly from conception, and scientists had trouble understanding how they worked until UW-Madison scientist James Thomson and his team found a way to isolate and “immortalize” stem cells in 1998. Using only embryos that would have been discarded by fertility clinics, Thomson and other UW researchers developed a number of stem cell lines that are still being studied today.

Cures are still many years away, but enough work has been done over the past seven years for scientists in Wisconsin and elsewhere to be optimistic about finding treatments and new drug therapies for heart disease, neural disorders, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

For all its promise, research on human embryonic stem cells has been controversial because – unlike stem cells obtained from adults or from umbilical cords – the only way to obtain them is to destroy the embryo. Those embryos can come from two sources: fertility clinics that have leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization and embryos created solely for the purpose of research, known as therapeutic cloning.

Scientists say fertility clinics alone would provide a limited number of embryos because many couples choose to store them rather than give them up. But a fair number of couples do give up their unused embryos for research, especially if their in vitro fertilization procedure has been successful and a new life has been created.

Romney said he’s fine on allowing stem cell research on embryos from clinics as long as the couples who created them give written permission, were not paid, and were offered the options of rejecting research in favor of storing the embryos or giving them up for adoption. That is precisely what happens in Wisconsin today.

The Massachusetts governor objects to therapeutic cloning, on the other hand, because he believes “creation for the purpose of destruction is wrong.” His stance would outlaw processes being planned at Harvard University and other Bay State institutions.

For example, Dr. Douglas Melton, co-founder of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, wants to start research with embryos created specifically for that purpose. He is interested in creating stem cells with a particular disease, such as Alzheimer’s, so scientists can better understand why some people develop the disease, how such diseases develop, and how they can be treated. Melton would also pay to produce the embryos.

Those techniques are not being used in Wisconsin, nor are they under consideration, said Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The non-profit WARF holds patents on stem cell research that began with Thomson and others, and licenses use of Wisconsin stem cell lines through its WiCell Research Institute under strict conditions.

Human embryonic stem cell research can be conducted in a way that would be considered ethical by the vast majority of people. Wisconsin scientists have already shown that. The governor of Massachusetts is proposing to break the stem-cell deadlock in his state by emulating what researchers in the Badger state already do.

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