UW-Madison, the “birthplace” of embryonic stem cell research, has big money riding on recent court decision

A little background: On August 23 a District of Columbia federal district court judge blocked rules promulgated by the Obama administration that expand embryo-destructive research. President Obama’s March 2009 executive order permitted federal funding of new embryonic stem cell lines derived from the destruction of new human embryos “donated” from in vitro fertilization clinics.

In his August 23 decision, Judge Royce Lamberth [which the Obama administration appealed yesterday] concluded that the new National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines clearly violate a 1995 federal law (known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment) that prohibits federal funding of scientific research in which human embryos “are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” Because embryonic stem cell research necessarily depends upon the destruction of the human embryo, Judge Lamberth ruled that the NIH guidelines violate the “plain language of the statute.” The New York Times has an article that clearly articulates the nuances of this issue. Read it here.

Pro-Life Wisconsin legislative director Matt Sande debated the issue on Wisconsin Public Radio’s (WPR) Joy Cardin show last week. To hear the show on WPR Audio Archives, click here. Then scroll down to Wednesday, August 25, 7 a.m.

How does this all relate back to UW-Madison?

UW is making money from embryonic stem cell research in two ways.

First, by way of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation [WARF], the designated patent management organization of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. WARF has at least 35 licensing agreements whereby WARF is paid for the worldwide distribution of embryonic stem cells. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is the largest licensee named publicly to date.

According to its website, in 2007-08 WARF, “Gave $83 million to  UW-Madison to support research, signed 68 new license and option agreements, took equity in 2 new UW-Madison spin-off companies…” It should be noted WARF’s patent income is not derived solely from embryonic stem cell distribution.

Second, UW brings in $5 million annually in federal tax payer dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research at the university. That amounts to 75 scientists who work solely on embryonic stem cell research, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

From an August 25 Wall Street Journal article: The University of Wisconsin has 34 approved projects involving human embryonic cells, of which 21 are paid for by the federal government, supporting the work of 18 scientists from cardiologists to chemists. Total federal funding for human-embryo research at the university is about $5 million annually.

Dr. Kamp, for example, is a cardiologist trying to understand heart function by studying the electrical properties in heart cells. Since it can be hard to obtain human cardiac cells, he is deriving heart cells from embryos, a project funded by the NIH.

So it’s not a surprise when UW welcomes Obama’s effort to restore embryonic stem cell research funding.

Timeline of embryonic stem cell research at UW, via the Wall Street Journal:

  • Mid-1990s James Thomson, a University of Wisconsin biologist, begins trying to grow human embryonic stem cells.
  • Nov. 1998 Dr. Thomson announces that he has successfully grown the cells.
  • Jan. 1999 Tommy Thompson, then-governor of Wisconsin, praises Dr. Thomson’s work in his state-of-the-state address, prompting outrage among pro-life groups.
  • Oct. 1999 The university-related Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation creates a private subsidiary, the WiCell Research Institute, to handle stem-cell distribution and oversee the lab. Dr. Thomson is the scientific director.
  • Feb. 2000 Some Wisconsin Republicans launch the first of several attempts to block the research.
  • Aug. 2001 President Bush decides to allow federal funding for research on existing human stem-cell lines. WARF officials expect researchers working with those lines will no longer have to work from private labs.
  • March 2009 President Obama signed an executive order federally funding embryonic stem cell research. The order removed President Bush’s August 2001 federal funding restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research.
  • August 2010 A federal judge blocks the expansion of funding embryonic stem cell research.
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