Former Gov. Tommy Thompson told the World Stem Cell Summit Tuesday a meeting he had in the summer of 2001 with President George W. Bush led to Bush’s approval of limited embryonic stem cell research.

Thompson, who served as Bush’s secretary of health and human services from 2001 to 2005, said he finally felt comfortable telling the story “because President Bush is almost out of office.”

Bush asked Thompson and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove to lunch.

“He says, ‘Gentlemen, I want you to debate embryonic stem cells for me,'” Thompson said. “He says. ‘Karl, I know you’re opposed to it, and Tommy, you’re for it. I want to learn about it.'”

Thompson said he told the president “every American” has a relative or friend who has suffered from diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

“And every one of those individuals that is suffering from that disease has got some inner hope, some inner hope that embryonic stem cells or stem cell research is going to find a cure for them,” Thompson said.

On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush announced he would allow federal funding for the research of 78 lines of embryonic stem cells.

Prior to that, the administration refused to fund any research involving embryonic stem cells, and Rove aimed to continue that policy.

“I’m absolutely certain if that lunch had not taken place, the research of the 78 lines would not have taken place,” Thompson said.

The four-term Wisconsin governor has been a supporter of embryonic stem cell research since 1998, when University of Wisconsin anatomy professor James Thomson first isolated human embryonic stem cell lines.

He, like many speakers at the World Stem Cell Summit, called upon the next president to lift the restrictions put in place by Bush.

Thompson also recommended an aggressive plan to cure cancer. He said he would advise the next president to take up a plan he talked about in his short-lived 2008 presidential candidacy.

That plan would aim for curing breast cancer by 2015, prostate cancer by 2020 and all forms of cancer by 2025.

“We have the capacity to do that,” Thompson said. “Just like we put a man on the moon. And just like Ronald Reagan says, ‘Tear down this wall.'”

Thompson’s remarks were a part of a panel that also featured Democrat Greg Simon, who oversaw the NIH and the National Cancer Institute as chief domestic foreign policy adviser to former Vice President Al Gore.

Simon made several statements implying he considered Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin underqualified, saying by her standards, he was qualified to be head of the NIH because he can “see the NIH from the roof of my house.”

“I ask the question: WWSPD? What would Sarah Palin do? And then I do the opposite, and we’ll make some progress in stem cell research,” Simon said.

A White House spokesperson did not return a Tuesday afternoon phone call seeking comment on the meeting between Thompson, Bush and Rove.