August 23, 2001


Politics & Policy
Wisconsin Shows Stem-Cell Quest
Can Become an Unstoppable Force

MADISON, Wis. -- On the outskirts of the University of Wisconsin sits the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, its slight separation from the bustling central campus appropriate given its role in fostering embryonic stem-cell research.

WARF, as the facility is known, has close ties to the school and supports some of its scientists with about $20 million of funding annually. But it is privately financed through patent and licensing agreements and two years ago spent about $1 million to create a private subsidiary to run a human stem-cell laboratory. Those steps helped keep the research going despite a ban on federal funding for such work and also helped prevent broader political attacks. In fact, the foundation doesn't disclose the location of its private lab, to protect researchers from protesters who think their work with human embryonic stem cells is unethical.

Keeping Things Moving

Wisconsin has more experience with the emotional politics of embryonic stem-cell research than does any other U.S. locale and, as the lab arrangement suggests, has figured out ways through the minefields. Embryonic stem-cell research was undertaken here several years ago by scientists who are employed at the state-funded university. Since then, the university and state officials have confronted various attempts to stop it. But a careful separation of private and public funds, a supportive governor -- who is now the nation's top health-policy official -- and the potential of the research to cure disease and make Madison a biotechnology hub kept things moving.

Stem-Cell Pact Is Expected to Be Reached Between U.S., Holder of Important Patent (Aug. 21)

Stem-Cell Patent Owner Sues Geron Over Control of Commercial Rights (Aug. 14)

What Access Will Researchers Have to the 60 Existing Stem-Cell Lines? (Aug. 13)

There are some differences between Wisconsin's situation and the rest of the nation's. Still, Wisconsin's experience suggests that, once the door is open, embryonic stem-cell research can become a juggernaut, moving ahead even in the face of opposition. President Bush's recent decision to limit federally funded research to existing stem-cell lines might not have gone far enough to satisfy proponents, but Wisconsin's story suggests it may prove to be sufficient to enable research to grow.

"The fight has essentially been won," says Norman Fost, a University of Wisconsin bioethicist.

The Wisconsin story begins in the mid-1990s, when James Thomson, a developmental biologist, first asked the university's ethicists what rules he would have to follow to begin extracting human embryonic stem cells, which have the capacity to differentiate into any kind of human cell. The stem cells were drawn from embryos that were left over after fertility procedures. The donors consented to the research, but it was bound to be controversial, given that some people, particularly those in the antiabortion movement, oppose the use of human tissue in this way.

After what the ethicists called meticulous discussions of how to obtain consent from embryo donors and how the material should be used, Dr. Thomson began his work in a small lab that the research foundation and the university both say was privately funded. The separation kept Dr. Thomson in line with federal law, which prevented federal funding of research on embryonic cells. Ultimately, the assertion that the lab was privately funded also protected the university from arguments that it shouldn't contribute taxpayers' money to something they might oppose.

A few years later, Dr. Thomson -- who declined to be interviewed for this article -- was ready to publish news that he had grown human stem cells successfully; the research foundation formed a private subsidiary to handle distribution of the cells to other institutions and to run a human stem-cell lab.

At that point, the attitude of the state's chief executive, Gov. Tommy Thompson, turned out to be crucial. Gov. Thompson, now President Bush's Health and Human Services secretary, took a particular interest in the stem-cell success. In tours of campus laboratories, researchers told him about the enormous potential for stem-cell research to lead to cures for devastating diseases. Some of those diseases had touched the governor personally; his wife and other family members have battled cancer.

Gov. Thompson also recognized that any progress made by university scientists would be a boon to the reputation of the state as a player in the biotech sector -- an important goal for a governor seeking to pull Wisconsin toward clean industry. He invited Michael Sussman, head of the University of Wisconsin's biotechnology center, to come to his office to provide frequent tutoring on the subject.

'Bold Pioneer'

As Dr. Thomson's announcement reached the rest of the world, Gov. Thompson jumped at the chance to publicize the work of the researcher, holding a reception at his home to celebrate. Two months later, Gov. Thompson praised Dr. Thomson's work in his state-of-the-state address, calling the researcher a "bold pioneer" who was "leading Wisconsin into the next millennium."

But the opposition from antiabortion groups was swift. They wrote letters to local newspapers criticizing the Catholic, antiabortion governor's position and began to push for legislation that would ban the research in the state. Embryonic research "had been an issue all along" for antiabortion groups, but "we began to get fully involved at that point," says Peggy Hamill of Pro-Life Wisconsin, a group based outside Milwaukee.

The criticism caught Gov. Thompson by surprise. "Most of the people on his staff didn't quite connect the dots" between research on embryonic stem cells and abortion politics, says Mark Bugher, a former top aide to the governor who now heads the University Research Park in Madison, which handles technology transfers for the school. "After that, we became a little more sensitive to the issue."


The Wisconsin Story:

The evolution of stem-cell research in Wisconsin, where it was born:

Mid-1990s James Thomson, a University of Wisconsin biologist, begins trying to grow human embryonic stem cells.

Nov. 1998 Dr. Thomson announces that he has successfully grown the cells.

Jan. 1999 Tommy Thompson, then-governor of Wisconsin, praises Dr. Thomson's work in his state-of-the-state address, prompting outrage among antiabortion groups.

Oct. 1999 The university-related Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation creates a private subsidiary, the WiCell Research Institute, to handle stem-cell distribution and oversee the lab. Dr. Thomson is the scientific director.

Feb. 2000 Some Wisconsin Republicans launch the first of several attempts to block the research.

Aug. 2001 President Bush decides to allow federal funding for research on existing human stem-cell lines. WARF officials expect researchers working with those lines will no longer have to work from private labs.


Gov. Thompson's policy staff communicated more frequently with antiabortion groups, but the governor never wavered from his strong pro-research position. Notably, though, he was never faced with deciding whether taxpayers' money should fund stem-cell research, as Mr. Bush was, since Dr. Thomson's work had been so completely cordoned off.

Still, Sheryl Albers, an antiabortion state assemblywoman representing Gov. Thompson's own hometown, proposed a bill to ban trafficking of limbs and tissues from aborted fetuses for profit -- an issue that had been the subject of an ABC News report. But University of Wisconsin officials successfully lobbied against it, arguing that the bill also would impede legal transport of embryonic stem-cell tissue. Wisconsin's stem-cell research backers also credit Gov. Thompson for vocally opposing the ban and openly criticizing Republican lawmakers seeking to impede the work, including Ms. Albers.

Seeking Bans

"He didn't do anything that was good for him politically -- he was hanging out there on a limb," says Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the research foundation. "Now, he's a hero."

During the most recent legislative session, the Republican-led assembly put a provision in the state budget to ban embryonic research in Wisconsin. The legislation, sponsored by Ms. Albers, also was unsuccessful, but it still worries research supporters.

In the coming year, antiabortion state lawmakers say they will propose two separate bills to ban embryonic stem-cell research. Ms. Albers wants to ban research on all but existing stem-cell lines, similar to President Bush's stance. Rep. Steve Freese, a Republican from Dodgeville, wants to go further, with a proposal to ban all embryonic stem-cell research as well as the buying and selling of the stem cells derived from human embryos.

Neither ban is expected to succeed because the Democrat-led Senate is vehemently opposed. But the efforts leave open the possibility that scientists in Wisconsin could face tighter strictures than researchers elsewhere. Adding to their concern is the relative silence of Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, who isn't as strong politically as Mr. Thompson was and faces an election in 2002.

Write to Sarah Lueck at