November 14, 2011

Stem Cell Protagonists in Wisconsin Senate Race

The Wisconsin 2012 Senate race is featuring a particularly sharp contrast between the leading candidates regarding stem cell research, whether the stem cells are derived from existing adult cells or from embryos. The issue of embryonic stem cell research remains controversial as it requires the use of (and possible deliberate creation of) an embryo. Many “pro-life” advocates include an opposition to embryonic stem cell research as part of a platform which opposes the right to abortion. In the Wisconsin 2012 Senate race, former governor Tommy Thompson is the current frontrunner for the GOP nomination to run against Democrat Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Thompson has become not only an advocate, but a sponsor, of recent efforts to increase adult stem research. This was illustrated by his appearance last week at the adult stem cell conference convened by the Vatican, which has entered the stem cell debate through a 5-year, $1 million partnership with NeoStem, Inc., a New York-based adult stem cell biotech company. His remarks took aim at embryonic stem cell research in favor of promoting adult stem cell research: "That’s what I love about adult stem cells – we’re using the divine wisdom inside of us to supercharge our bodies and wipe away disease.  And as we do this, not one single human embryo is destroyed. " Here's an eyewitness report from Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania on the dubious scientific merits of the conference. Thompson has also called for a federal commission to be established that would specifically advance adult stem cell research.  Wisconsin Democrats have criticized Thompson's overt association with Vatican venture. Rep. Baldwin has been an advocate for embryonic stem cell research; of note is that one of the first successful efforts in isolating embryonic stem cells took place at the University of Wisconsin in 1998 and that Wisconsin has had a significant stem cell sector ever since. If Thompson secures the GOP nomination and Senate race is between Baldwin and Thompson, the stage could be set for a fairly explicit referendum on official policies toward adult vs. embryonic stem cell research. With Thompson standing with the Vatican efforts to elevate adult stem cell work and Baldwin being a firm proponent of embryonic stem cell research, this race would recast the stem cell debate in a novel and idiosyncratic context. Beyond the politics, what's important to remember is that research into both sources of stem cells is worth conducting and funding, but the scientific merits of each (and funding decisions to follow) may be interpreted through ideological filters which distort actual results. Thus, the relative merits of each may not emerge for years.

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