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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011

Republicans Could Ban Stem Cell Research in Wisconsin

Vaguely written bill would have 'catastrophic' impact on biotech industry

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More than 60 Republican legislators have signed on to a bill that would ban stem cell research in the state.

Supported by the extremist anti-abortion group Pro-Life Wisconsin, the bill would criminalize the sale or use of tissue from a fetus that had been aborted.

But the ban doesn't stop there.

The bill is so vaguely worded that it could ban and criminalize embryonic stem cell research in the state—at the same time researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are using embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other life-threatening diseases.

Even worse, the bill could outlaw the use of common vaccines for polio, rubella, measles and hepatitis, since they are derived from tissue originally obtained decades ago from embryos.

Stephen Duncan, director of MCW's program in regenerative medicine and stem cell biology, said the ban would have a "catastrophic" effect on stem cell research in Wisconsin because small amounts of fetal cells have been replicated so many times throughout the years for lifesaving treatments.

"These cells have become an integral part of biomedical research and the biotech industry that continue to be used to discover new things," Duncan said.

Robert Golden, dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said the bill would shut down Wisconsin's internationally lauded, cutting-edge biotech research.

"It would have a devastating effect that I'm not sure we'd ever recover from," Golden said. "We have a number of groups that have been using all available, accepted techniques to go after tough issues ranging from new approaches to cancer to birth defects. This bill is so broadly written that it would criminalize the use of any type of tool that had at some point been derived from fetal material. It would shut down a lot of researchers. We would lose them and their work to other institutions outside of Wisconsin. More importantly, there would be a loss of time and progress in their science."

Halting Medical Breakthroughs

But Matt Sande, director of legislative affairs for Pro-Life Wisconsin, the only group that is lobbying for the ban, has a different view of the bill and its impact. Sande said that researchers can make strides by using stem cells only from adults or fetuses that had been miscarried or stillborn.

The problem, in Sande's view, is that the fetus did not consent to be aborted, so therefore it is unethical to use cells from it.

"It doesn't matter what the medical impact is," Sande said of the bill's effect. "The fact that we're achieving medical breakthroughs but doing it through the use of aborted fetal body parts—we oppose that. We oppose any type of research that at its basis attacks the dignity of the unborn child."

In contrast, researchers in the field say that it's not so simple.

MCW's Duncan explained that about 50 years ago, European scientists took samples from terminated pregnancies.

"They were able to culture these cells indefinitely," Duncan said. "The cells were able to proliferate and divide and make more and more of themselves. That was a real breakthrough at the time because people hadn't been able to work out how to make cells grow in culture dishes until these advances had been made."

So those few terminated pregnancies led to cells that have been replicated and used in cutting-edge research and practical applications such as vaccines that have eradicated diseases and the production of insulin and proteins.

Duncan said that the bill's passage would halt groundbreaking work being done at MCW. For example, MCW has been selected as one of only a handful of sites in the country to work on healing spinal cord injuries with embryonic stem cells.

"If this bill were put in place, it would also prevent all of these trials from taking place in Wisconsin," Duncan said. "It would stop Wisconsin residents from being able to try out some of these therapies."

UW's Golden said that forcing researchers to only use cells from miscarried or stillborn fetuses is impractical if not impossible.

"Usually the circumstances surrounding a spontaneous miscarriage are such that you can't get material that's usable for scientific purposes," Golden said. "That's very different than when there is a scheduled procedure done. When there is an emergency situation [in a miscarriage], you've got to save lives."

Working With Approved Materials

But Sande is convinced that UW researchers are using material straight from the abortion clinic in Madison.

"We're simply challenging the scientific community to do their research in an ethical manner," Sande said. "Is it easier to go down to the local abortion clinic and grab whatever body parts they want? They are [doing that]."

Golden said that acquiring material such as stem cells for scientific research is highly regulated and done in an ethical manner.

"All of the institutions I'm aware of follow the letter and the spirit of the law," Golden said. "We would never use materials that were never approved for research use. We aren't sneaking into dark alleyways and surreptitiously buying materials through criminal activity. We purchase, oftentimes with federal support, approved materials for science that is reviewed by peers and other boards to make sure that we're doing things with the highest attention to current legal and ethical standards."

Golden said the bill's introduction increases the uncertainty of stem cell research in Wisconsin, leading scientists to consider leaving the state to do their work in a more hospitable environment.

"They don't want to be derailed," Golden said. "They don't want to wait and see how the bill is interpreted. They simply want to know whether they should begin to return phone calls from other institutions that are trying to recruit them to their campuses."