Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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Between the lines — Stem-cell research at UW Madison

Stem-cell research effectively got off the ground at UW-Madison just three years ago. The question now is how far it will be allowed to go.

The recent compromise fielded by President Bush was a step in the right direction, but progress may be stymied on the legal front. On November 6, 1998, a team of UW scientists headed by biologist James Thomson became the first to successfully capture and develop a line of stem cells. Supported by the Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, Calif., and using embryos donated by in-vitro fertilization clinics, they ended a 17-year race to produce a viable line.

Not resolved, however, were ethical and legal issues that have now returned with a vengeance. At the time, federal law did not permit extensive research with the new stem-cell line or others isolated later on. Even with that issue potentially resolved, research does not yet have a green light.

The battle for stem-cell research has, until now, largely been waged in political circles, where the scientific issues have at best been an understudy for the ethical battle waged by every party with a stake in the matter, from the Vatican to the Pro-Life movement, from professional bioethicists to Jerry Falwell.

Now that the ethical phase of the debate has largely been fought out, legal issues remain a stumbling block for researchers hoping to base their work on stem-cell technology. Issues of intellectual property and profits threaten to blunt any effort at free and open research and development.

The Geron Corporation, which funded a large part of UW’s original research, was in return granted an exclusive option with the university to develop the foundation’s five stem-cell lines into six types of cells that could be grown and commercially developed, as well as rights on other potential types of cells.

Geron’s option expired July 31, yet Geron asserts it is exercising its rights on the other types of stem-cell products. The university filed suit against Geron Aug. 13 in district court, a suit UW Chancellor John Wiley has said “will ensure that future research is conducted in the public interest by preserving the broadest access to these original stem-cell lines.”

The issue at stake is simply the freedom to do research on stem-cell lines without draconian restrictions dictated by Geron. At present, Geron has imposed requirements on potential researchers which have been described as “hostile and punitive.” Scientists are required to sign “material transfer agreements,” which not only limit what they can do with the cells but also what they can say and publish about their research.

Such restrictions are certainly not in accord with the reasons the stem cell lines were developed in the first place, with the aim of using them to cure disease and prolong life. Geron’s gag efforts have the potential to hold hostage any beneficial research on the stem-cell lines.

While the budget for the National Institutes of Health, which regulates federal funding for stem-cell research, lies in the balance in Congress, legal issues threaten research from another front, and regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, they will no doubt continue to do so. Biotechnology has established itself as an uneasy frontier where the ideals of science mingle with the financial ethics of loan-sharking. Plato asked for a philosopher-king; now we can only hope for a judge who took chemistry.

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