Bernard Siegel brings worldwide summit to Madison to advance stem cell research
Todd Finkelmeyer — 9/17/2008 8:46 am

No one, including Bernard Siegel himself, pictured the day he would become a passionate advocate for the cause of stem cell research and regenerative medicine.

"As I often say, my 10th-grade biology teacher would really be surprised," said Siegel, who is credited with spearheading the World Stem Cell Summit and related events, slated for Sept. 21-23 in Madison.

After receiving his law degree from the University of Miami in 1975, Siegel started handling child custody and missing children cases in Florida. He eventually entered the sports world, where he worked as an agent, co-owned Florida Championship Wrestling and founded the Miami Tropics, a minor-league basketball franchise.

It was only after a successful battle against colon cancer 10 years ago, and a bizarre legal showdown in late 2002 against a UFO cult claiming to have cloned a baby, that Siegel's career veered down a strange yet exciting new path.

In 2003, Siegel traded in his 30-year courtroom career to found the nonprofit Genetics Policy Institute, which leads the global "pro-cures" movement and Stem Cell Action Coalition for Cures. Along the way, he has played a key role in helping to convince the United Nations to oppose a proposed ban on therapeutic cloning for stem cell research and has worked with grass-roots activists and lawmakers throughout the United States on formulating effective strategies to support stem cell studies.

"He's the driving force behind this summit," said Tim Kamp, co-director of UW-Madison's Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, which is co-sponsoring the summit along with the WiCell Research Institute and Siegel's Genetics Policy Institute.

"Bernie's the person who has taken it upon himself to have this forum every year and partner with a major academic institution. He's put together something that's very different from a typical scientific meeting. He's getting all the stem cell stakeholders involved and together in one place, and getting people to work together."

Madison is the perfect place for such a gathering, Siegel said: "With the history of all the great stem cell breakthroughs that have come at this university, it only made sense to try and bring the World Stem Cell Summit here."

It's been 10 years since UW-Madison biologist James Thomson became the first scientist to coax stem cells from human embryos. The discovery was significant because stem cells are capable of transforming into cells from any organ tissue in the body. Scientists say these so-called pluripotent cells hold the key to discovering the causes and cures for many human ailments, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes, blindness and spinal cord injuries.

But because embryos are destroyed in the process, stem cell research has become a target of anti-abortion groups and socially conservative politicians like President Bush who support restrictions on such research. Just last year, however, researchers in Thomson's lab announced they had produced stem cells from human skin cells, a move that might ultimately quiet the opposition to stem cell research. Scientists say that more study of these skin cells is needed to ensure they don't differ from embryonic stem cells in unexpected ways.