Lois Anderson, a "card-carrying, lifelong" Republican from Madison, isn't sure who to vote for this November in the race for governor.
The reason: stem cells.
Anderson would normally support Republican candidate Mark Green, whose opposition to much embryonic stem-cell research is shared by her Christian Reformed church.
But the 79-year-old woman's husband has Parkinson's disease, for which stem cells could become a cure. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle favors the research, pioneered at UW-Madison eight years ago.
"I know (the embryo) has the potential for life," she said. "But I can't understand why a blob of cells is considered more important than a person who is alive and suffering from a disease."
Conflicted voters such as Anderson are a major reason microscopic cells floating in petri dishes have become one of the hottest topics in the governor's race. With polls showing the public 2-to-1 in favor of federal funding for the ground-breaking research, Democrats hope to use the issue to drive a wedge into Green's base of support.
Others worry a Green victory could hurt Wisconsin's prominence in the field and minimize its impact on the state's economy. It was here that researchers first grew the blank-slate cells, thought capable of developing into any type of cell in the body.
"We're still leading," said Igor Slukvin, one of more than 110 stem-cell scientists on campus.
"But without support, we'll lose very soon to California or other states."
Doyle has made promoting embryonic stem-cell research a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, while claiming Green would "shut down" the science.
Green, a four-term U.S. representative from Green Bay, bristles at claims he's hostile to the science.
He has supported President Bush's policy of providing federal funding for research on embryonic stem-cell lines in existence as of August 2001 but not on those created afterward.
Hailed at the time as a reasonable compromise, the policy is roundly criticized by scientists today as unduly restrictive.
Green also notes that UW- Madison has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that policy. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has patents on five of the 21 approved cell lines, so the foundation profits from their use. Green also voted to establish the nation's only stem-cell bank, on the UW-Madison campus.
This month, he pledged $25 million in state funding on new embryonic stem-cell research that may not harm embryos.
But more often than not, Green has found himself on the defensive on the issue, and there is no mistaking the deep distrust leading scientists in the field - and many advocates for the disabled - feel toward him.
Those doubts have been fed by Green's frequent praise of so-called "adult" stem-cell research, in which certain cells harvested from babies, children and adults can be coaxed to grow into a limited number of other cells.
Adult stem-cell research is not controversial, and many scientists view Green's vocal support for it as an effort to change the subject from what they say is the most promising line of inquiry: human embryonic stem cells.
In contrast, Doyle has emerged as a national voice on embryonic stem-cell science. He has given keynote addresses at conferences in California and Washington, D.C., in which he has supported expanded federal funding for the research and spoken against a ban on cloning to produce stem cells for research purposes.
He has repeatedly surrounded himself with solemn and sympathetic families whose loved ones suffer from debilitating illnesses that could one day be helped by the research. He notes the loss of his own mother last spring to Parkinson's disease.
Two years ago, Doyle pledged $750 million over 10 years in public and private investments for biomedical research, of which $375 million would go toward a planned Institutes for Discovery at UW-Madison. To date, the state has committed $50 million for the first $150 million phase of that project.
Green has said he would back continued state support for the effort but has not said to what extent.
Distinctions between Green and Doyle on the topic have been clouded somewhat in the wake of a scientific announcement last month. A California laboratory said it had plucked a single cell from an eight-cell embryo and grew it into a line of stem cells, in a method that can be done without harming the embryo.
The existing method, pioneered at UW-Madison, takes the cells from five-day-old embryos, which are destroyed in the process.
Many scientists, politicians and media hailed the discovery as the much-hoped-for middle ground between shutting down the research - and the hopes of millions of people living with diseases - and overriding the objections of those who liken destruction of early-stage embryos to abortion.
Green has enthusiastically embraced the work, going so far as to say any differences between Doyle and himself on the matter of stem cell research "now appear moot."
But Doyle rejected Green's overture as simplistic and insincere.
"Congressman Green likes to say he supports stem-cell research," Doyle said. "But his record and rhetoric could not be clearer. He opposes it, and if he had his way, he would shut it down."
Researchers also caution that the impact of last month's breakthrough on the future of embryonic stem-cell work is unknown, and the technique raises its own ethical questions.
Most scientists favor lifting the limits on federal funding to allow creation of new stem-cell lines using the proven method. That method uses leftover embryos from in-vitro fertilization clinics that would otherwise be discarded.
In July, Bush vetoed a measure adopted by the Republican-controlled Congress that would have done just that. While Doyle was one of eight governors who urged lawmakers to override the veto, Green voted to uphold it.
A schism on cloning
Beyond the qualified support Green has voiced for embryonic stem-cell research, however, an even bigger gulf separates the candidates: cloning.
In the cloning process, DNA from a patient replaces the nucleus of a donor egg.
When this is done to produce offspring, such as the 1996 case in which scientists cloned Dolly the sheep, it is considered "reproductive cloning." When done to create stem cells genetically matched to the patient for therapies or for research, it is called "therapeutic cloning."
Doyle wants to ban human reproductive cloning but allow therapeutic cloning. Green wants to ban both.
Although not currently performed in Wisconsin, therapeutic cloning could one day enable scientists to copy diseased cells to make it easier to study them in culture. Because such cells would be an exact match to the patient, they also would be less likely to be rejected if they're used in therapies.
Scientists are divided over the usefulness of cloning to stem-cell research, although many say the procedure is the inevitable next step as the science moves toward clinical applications.
Banning all cloning - even criminalizing it, as Green has said he would do - will send the same message as outlawing stem-cell research itself, some say.
"This is the thin edge of the wedge," said UW-Madison neurologist Ian Duncan, who last month signed on with a group of pro-Doyle scientists, family members, business leaders and patient advocates calling themselves Stem Cell Champions for Doyle.
"It's quite clear that if there are political changes that in any way inhibit our future research, this will continue to have a chilling and very demoralizing effect on those of us who are working so hard" in developing treatments for these diseases, he said.
An economic issue, too
The impact of that could go beyond the laboratory to the heart of the state's economy, advocates say.
In 2004, the last year for which data are available, the UW-Madison attracted more than $763 million in federal research dollars, of which nearly $474 million was in the life sciences.
The university is an "economic development juggernaut," said John Neis, managing director for Venture Investors of Wisconsin, a manager of early stage venture capital funds.
"I have never seen the potential for the university to have an impact on the economy of this state be so great," said Neis, who is also a Doyle backer. "But I've also never seen the threat of undermining that capability be greater."
Any legislation seen as limiting research "would send a powerful message to the biotech, venture capital and research community that Wisconsin has a hostile regulatory environment," he said.
Green rejects such claims as alarmist and overtly partisan.
The current policy limiting federal research spending on specified lines has been "extremely lucrative" for UW-Madison, he maintained.
A question of morality?
Green, who frequently sums up his position as an effort not to "leave our moral compass behind," envisions a future where Wisconsin attracts more scientists and research dollars precisely because it practices a more ethical form of research.
That future certainly appeals to Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, which actively lobbied for a ban on both types of cloning the Legislature passed this year. Doyle vetoed the measure.
Lyons' group has prepared several other pieces of model legislation it hopes a Republican Legislature and governor would adopt.
Those include establishing a bank of "adult" stem cells from umbilical cord blood; making it easier to adopt leftover embryos from fertility clinics; and prohibiting anyone, including scientists at private laboratories, from creating human embryos for research.
Green supports the first two measures. He doesn't intend to restrict research at private labs, although Green's campaign manager, Mark Graul, reiterated Green's hope that the new embryo-sparing technique would make future destruction of embryos unnecessary.
But Green's opposition to therapeutic cloning is not subject to debate. He disputes the claim that science benefits from having the option available. More fundamentally, however, he believes the process crosses an unacceptable ethical boundary.
"We understand what the position of the scientists is," Graul said. "What Mark is saying is that science has now found a way that we can do this research without destroying embryos, and that's Mark's position. Why everybody wouldn't embrace that as a way to move forward with this research is surprising."
Phil Brinkman and David Wahlberg are reporters for the Wisconsin State Journal.
EXAMINING THE CANDIDATES' WORDS
"Mark Green has tried to ban or even criminalize proven methods of stem-cell research." - Jim Doyle (Green has never voted to criminalize stem-cell research but has supported legislation to criminalize all human cloning, including so-called therapeutic cloning, which involves replacing an egg's nucleus with a patient's DNA in order to create stem cells that are a match to the person.)
"I am a strong supporter of stem-cell research." - Mark Green (Green's support is qualified: He backs limited federal funding for research on embryonic stem-cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001, and supports an experimental approach that wouldn't destroy embryos. But he opposes expanded federal support for embryonic stem-cell research using current methods.)
"Stem-cell research is the most hopeful avenue right now for an actual cure for diabetes." - Jim Doyle (Embryonic stem-cell research is still in its earliest stages, with clinical applications years or decades away. No one knows whether the promise of stem-cell therapies will, in fact, be realized. Other cures for diabetes, such as new drugs, could come quicker.)
"I don't believe we should create life in order to destroy it."
- Mark Green (Embryonic stem cells are harvested from excess embryos created in in-vitro fertilization clinics. They come from embryos developed with the express purpose of creating life, but which are no longer wanted.)
On claims embryonic stem-cell research can be likened to abortion: "We're talking about little cells in a petri dish." - Jim Doyle (Stem cells are, indeed, taken from days-old embryos, called blastocysts, that consist of about 150 cells. The embryos typically are left over from in-vitro fertilization treatment and destined to be destroyed. But harvesting stem cells does kill the embryo.)
"I don't believe we should leave our moral compass behind when we step into the laboratory." - Mark Green (State, federal and academic guidelines are already in place for medical studies involving human subjects, including stem-cell research, and the work is reviewed by other researchers and oversight committees.)
Source: State Journal reporting