Since being the site of the first place to isolate stem cells in non-human primates, the University of Wisconsin has continued to pave the way for scientific research in the field.
Stem cells are a type of undifferentiated cell most commonly found in embryos and fetuses that have the ability to develop into different, more specialized cells.
Norman Fost, UW Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, said scientists speculate that stem cells could be used for understanding of normal and abnormal development, testing of drugs for efficacy and safety and tissue transplants.
James Thomson, director of regenerative biology at UW, first proposed the creation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 after being a part of the first group to isolate stem cells in 1995. At the time, Thomson was the chair of the UW Health Sciences Institutional Review Board, Fost said.
Two UW committees developed the first guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research, which became the basis for the current U.S. guidelines created by an Institute of Medicine committee, Fost said.
According to a 2010 Harris Interactive poll, 72 percent of American adults believe that embryonic stem cell research, which uses stem cells harvested from in vitro fetuses, should be allowed.
Many students are interested in careers in stem cell research fields, including Anna-Lisa Doebley, a junior majoring in genetics who was recently awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship that recognizes only four students from UW each year, according to a university statement.
Doebley said she first became interested in stem cells when she heard news reports about breakthroughs in the field.
“I think that stem cell based treatments will transform medicine,” Doebley said. “These treatments will enable us to find cures for previously incurable diseases, reduce the dependence on organ donors and improve the quality of life for people suffering from all types of diseases.”
Although Doebley said she understands there are some ethical concerns with stem cell research, she believes their potential to advance the field of medicine outweighs the ethical complications.
Some of these ethical complications involved in stem cell research have been studied by UW professors and researchers, including UW law professor Robin Alta Charo.
A phenomenon known as “stem cell tourism” poses a challenge to the advancement of stem cell research, Charo said. Stem cell tourism is characterized by people traveling around the world to get stem cell treatments that are not approved in the U.S. and have not been proven safe or effective by any regulatory authority, she said.
“One frustration I have is that patients are confusing the reputable and the disreputable clinics, and confusing the real from the illusory treatments,” Charo said.
Due to the high publicity and lack of widespread public understanding of stem cell biology, many people have become prone to accepting stem cell treatments that do not necessarily have scientifically confirmed success, she said.
Charo said she still believes in the potential of stem cell biology to cure debilitating diseases in the future and understands stem cells could be useful in regenerative medicine. But she said stem cell tourism must be addressed.
“People in desperate circumstances will try many things,” Charo said. “There are too many people today who are the victims of misrepresentation, and who think they are getting proven treatments. In many cases, they are not.”
In a previous version of this story, James Thomson’s name was misspelled. It has since been modified.