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Navigating the controversy ignited by the 1998 stem cell discovery

Navigating the controversy ignited by the 1998 stem cell discovery

From the Stem cells @20: Celebrating historic discovery series

It was December 1998, and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation had just been issued a patent based on Jamie Thomson’s work on embryonic stem cells.

This was a continuation of his patent filed in 1995 for deriving stem cells from primates. I got a phone call from the general counsel of the National Institutes of Health, who had been summoned to testify at the U.S. Senate about the patent.

“I believe that these claims cover human, would you agree with that?" she asked. I replied, "You're absolutely right.”

This was the day the firestorm over stem cells started.

None of us really knew what the ultimate medical value of this was going to be, but we understood from Dr. Thomson that human embryonic stem cells were extremely important as basic research tools.

We also knew that it raised a number of moral, ethical and religious issues. Human embryonic stem cells are derived from early-stage embryos. In the process, the embryo is discarded.

The first major problem we faced was the threat this posed for UW-Madison. We couldn’t conduct any work on campus without jeopardizing federal funding, which could not be used on stem cell research at the time.

There’s probably not a laboratory on campus that isn’t somehow tied to federal funds. We also knew that Wisconsin, home to powerful pro-life advocates, was not friendly to this kind of research. There were a lot of demonstrations.

Big public universities sometimes get criticized as being too staid and conservative, but we had people willing to take risks. The dean of the graduate school, Virginia Hinshaw, was a virologist and wanted this science to go forward. Our board also backed us 100 percent.

We had to think creatively, so we established the WiCell Research Institute, an off-campus facility on the second floor of a telephone switching station with no outside signage, to conduct research.

We probably made some mistakes, but we really did try and maintain a transparent process. We never attempted to hide what was happening at WiCell. We also provided clear information for prospective donors at IVF clinics that supplied the embryos.

The key was to operate with high integrity, which is what we did all the time.

Yes, we were focused on patents, and later licensing agreements. That makes our work sound like we were in it for the money, but that could not be further from the case.

Our mission is to disseminate technology. We knew this discovery was going to be critically important, and that meant we had to get it out there to advance the science.

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