Required Reading

I generally favor the pro-growth economic policies of Gov. Scott Walker, although the demise of the high-speed rail project has raised pro-growth doubts in more than a few minds around here. The thing that most worries me about Walker will be his approach to human embryonic stem cell research, which is loathed by a key segment of his political base.

Until recently, it seemed the Great Stem Cell Debate had been decided in favor of expanding the research, but a federal judge has reopened that can of worms. While the federal courts and/or Congress will ultimately decide this issue nationally, I would hope Walker takes the cue from his political mentor, Tommy Thompson, and not take steps to curtail the research in Wisconsin. It's an economic advantage we happen to enjoy, in large measure because human embryonic stem cells were first successfully isolated and cultured by researchers at UW-Madison.

A new publication, originally written for the classroom, seeks to put the potential of this research in perspective, and it's worthwhile reading for policy makers. Madison resident Sue Carlson, vice president and treasurer of AccedeCPA, played a role in putting out a consumer edition of the book, Introduction to Stem Cell Science, through one of her clients, the Genetics Policy Institute. These are the folks who put on the annual World Stem Cell Summit.

The book comes in three versions — a consumer edition, a classroom edition, and a teacherÕs edition, but each one can take us to school. In another career life at the WiCell Research Institute, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Carlson spent considerable time touting stem cell research while traveling around the state with fellow evangelist Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Those sessions helped solidify public support for the research, and Carlson hopes the book can add more layers of perspective.

I appreciate the advice the four PhD authors — Catherine Ennis, Emer Clarke, Christopher Lannon, and Eric Atkinson, all of ReachBio, LLC — offer about media coverage. The tendency of journalists is to overhype things, but most scientists are much more realistic about what stem cell research can accomplish in the short and long term. Clinical trials involving stem cell therapies are just underway — Geron's for spinal cord injuries and Advanced Cell Technology's for Stargardt's disease, an eye disorder — but the authors say we need to know more about these cells before success can be realized.

"The idea of the book was to provide an introduction to what stem cells really are versus what is perceived," Carlson said, "and to give people a basic grounding in the science, the ethics, and how to read a news story to suss out what scientists are saying versus what the headlines might say."

Stem cells, which are cells that differentiate into every cell type in the body, have the ability to self-renew, so it's easy to see why researchers find them so valuable.

In her travels around the state, the most common misconception Carlson encountered was that human embryonic stem cells, which are derived from early-stage embryos obtained from in-vitro fertilization clinics (with donor consent), are the only kind of stem cells. While human embryonic stem cell research gets a lot of attention, Carlson notes there are several kinds of stem cell research, including: human adult stem cells, which are found in most tissues of the body; induced pluripotent stem cells, which are adult stem cells that have been coaxed into reverting back to something like an embryonic stem cell; and non human embryonic stem cell research (mouse and primate).

At the moment, Carlson believes stem cells should be viewed more as research tools rather than treatments. I just hope the Governor understands that each type of research has an important role to play in advancing the science.

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