VIEWPOINT: For Stem Cell Research, The Election Matters

Our guest blogger is Dr. Timothy J. Kamp, Professor of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Co-Director of its Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.

The promise of stem cell research has been protected by President Obama, but the election of Mitt Romney would send Wisconsin’s signature biotechnology field back into chaos, costing the state its national reputation as a good home forward-looking, job-creating business, to say nothing of dashing the hopes of thousands of patients waiting for new therapies to treat incurable diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimers and diabetes.

There are many types of stem cells, and the Obama Administration has supported the full range of research to meet our moral commitment to improve the lives of the sick and hurting. But while some of these — such as “adult stem cells” — have been touted as sufficient to meet our needs, human embryonic stem cells remain the gold standard for the basic science research necessary for the entire field to advance. Indeed, they laid the groundwork for the 2007 breakthrough by James Thompson at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka in Japan that generated the “induced pluripotent stem cells” that may, in the future, provide yet another avenue toward patient cures. Under President Obama, the NIH has been directed to support this basic research provided the cell lines were obtained in a responsible fashion from embryos that could no longer be used for human reproduction and were otherwise to be discarded.

Why does this matter?

In the 14 years since the discovery and isolation of human embryonic stem (ES) cells by James Thomson and colleagues, researchers at UW-Madison have had access to human cell types in abundance that were not previously available for research, allowing them to investigate diseases in new ways by growing human cells in a dish.

Of course, much of the interest in human ES cells is in developing new therapies for various diseases. Like any new revolutionary treatment of human disease, it does not happen overnight. Before subjecting patients to risks of a new treatment, there needs to be strong evidence from pre-clinical studies that the treatments are safe and effective. For example, Su-Chun Zhang at UW-Madison has found that transplanting a particular type of neuron derived from human ES cells to a mouse brain can treat an experimental form of Huntington’s disease, a progressive, lethal neurodegenerative disease. Remarkable research by David Gamm’s laboratory, also at UW-Madison, has revealed the ability to form critical cells present in the human eye, which may be able to cure specific forms of blindness. While the road to patient clinical trials is long, human embryonic stem cell derivatives are already making their debuts in clinical trials to treat spinal cord injury and two different forms of blindness.

Though Romney doesn’t often highlight his position on research funding, he supports stripping federal support for work involving human ES cells, a position that’s squarely in line with his party’s. The Republican platform takes the same position, as does Senate candidate Tommy Thomson (R-WI), who appears to have selectively forgotten his earlier support of stem cell research and is now calling for funding only for alternatives that are patently inadequate without the basic research done with embryonic stem cells. These policies would spell a return (at best) to the Bush-era policies that limited research to 21 older, less sophisticated cell lines and deterred young researchers from entering what was perceived as a field whose funding depended on politics rather than good science. Under President Obama, 182 cell lines have been made available. Funding for research on these lines, as well as the 83 lines awaiting approval, would all be lost under a Romney administration.

The University of Wisconsin alone has received tens of millions of dollars in federal grants for cutting-edge research and been at the center of positioning Wisconsin as a leader in business and in the biotechnology sector in particular. According to a study by BioForward, jobs in the biotechnology sector — good jobs at higher wages — have increased even while other sectors have declined. A Romney administration policy of hostility toward embryonic stem cell research will send those jobs to other states, and even to other countries. Wisconsin’s leadership in the very field that will define 21st century medicine is bad for our state, and bad for America.

I was fortunate to be present at the White House when President Obama signed the executive order that returned federal funding to this field, based on good science and what was good for patients. I was proud to be there along with other stem cell researchers and longtime supporters of the research in the Congress, including Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). But the most important and excited groups present on that day were the patients and patient advocates who had fought tirelessly for this change in policy and the opening of new avenues of hope. Let’s hope that whoever wins on Tuesday won’t take that away from them again.