By Julian Pecquet – 10/17/11 05:15 AM ET
Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Tommy Thompson is addressing an unprecedented conference of scientific and religious leaders next month at the Vatican on the topic of stem cell research.
Thompson, a former governor of Wisconsin, is running for the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. If he survives primary challenges from two more conservative candidates — former Rep. Mark Neumann and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald — he’ll face Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin.
The three-day event seeks to build support for stem cell studies that don’t require the controversial destruction of human embryos. The Vatican is putting on the conference in collaboration with New York-based NeoStem, a world leader in adult stem cell research.
“This is the first attempt to translate this high, sophisticated knowledge for the wide public,” the Rev. Tomasz Trafny, the head of the Science and Faith Department at the Pontifical Council for Culture, told The Hill during a visit to Washington to help plan the conference. “The revolutionary part of this [conference] is that we entered this collaboration because we consider that united forces can really have a bigger impact. We need to present issues, topics, together with scientists.”
Thompson, who is Roman Catholic, is slated to discuss “the social and political challenges” of stem cell medicine. It’s a topic he’s intimately familiar with: He was secretary of Health and Human Services in 2001 when President George W. Bush signed an executive order prohibiting federal funding for new embryonic stem cell lines.
President Obama has since signed an executive order overturning Bush’s ban. And a U.S. district court judge over the summer dismissed a lawsuit challenging the use of taxpayer dollars for embryonic stem cell research, which uses embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures.
The debate pits religious leaders who believe life starts at conception against some scientists who think embryonic stem cells hold infinite promise for treating a wide variety of illness — including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries or vision and hearing loss — because they can be developed into specific cell types.
As other countries grapple with the issue, the Catholic Church hopes next month’s conference will impress upon ambassadors to the Holy See that stem cell research is possible without destroying human embryos.
“There is an ethical, theological consideration; but of course it goes together with medical considerations,” Trafny said. “You have more achievements in adult stem cell research than in embryonic stem cell research, and people should think about that.”
NeoStem President and CEO Robin Smith said the public is confused about stem cells, and many Catholic patients “close down” when they hear about stem cell therapies — even if they didn’t come from embryos.
“There are so many people who feel relief when we say, ‘No, no, this isn’t embryonic stem cells’ … because they feel they’re having to make choices between their moral beliefs, their ethical beliefs and science,” Smith said. “There’s so much confusion that it distracts people.”
Therapies using bone marrow and umbilical cord blood stem cells have been used for years to treat certain cancers such as leukemia, and many others are in experimental stages. Meanwhile, the first embryonic stem cell clinical trials are currently under way, with giant corporations such as Pfizer eager to join in on the action.
Smith argues that adult stem cells hold just as much promise, thanks to new discoveries about their ability to differentiate into various cell types, without the ethical concerns and risk of rejection of embryonic stem cells. Other scientists question whether adult stem cells are numerous enough to be sufficiently isolated and purified to compete with embryonic stem cells