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Making History

Making History: James A. Thomson: Pioneer of Stem Cell Research

The field of stem cell research has been surrounded in controversy, and its early potential has been widely misunderstood by some; nevertheless it is an important field of research in the future of medicine.

James A. Thomson, born and raised in Oak Park, Ill., came from a decidedly non-scientific background (his mother was a college administrator, his father a certified public accountant). Born in 1958, he developed a passion for science early in life. While at the University of Illinois (U of I) studying mathematics and physics, Thomson became interested in the field of mammalian embryology. He then turned to the field of molecular biology. After earning a degree in biophysics from U of I, Thomson pursued a graduate program in molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also became interested in veterinary medicine, and graduated with Ph.Ds in both fields. His research focused on isolating stem cells in primates, and he and his team were successful in 1995.

Thomson’s research ran into controversy because at the time human stem cells could be isolated only from in vitro human embryos, which were destroyed as a result. This ran afoul of beliefs of right-to-life advocates, who believed that such research destroyed potential human beings. American policy was to deny federal funding for research on human embryos.

After consulting with medical ethicists, Thomson concluded that the potential good such research could do, using embryos that would likely be discarded in any case, trumped the ethical concerns, and he elected to continue his research using private funding. It is important to note that the creation of in vitro embryos for the purpose of research is illegal in the United States. The embryos used are obtained by researchers from fertility clinics; they are in excess of those needed by infertile couples, and are donated to research with the informed consent of the couples.

In 1998 Thomson and his team managed to isolate a human stem cell from a human embryo. While the popular press hailed the achievements of Thomson and others as a potential panacea for various medical problems, possibly leading to cures for various neurological, cardiovascular, and other diseases and conditions by replacing various cells within the human body, Thomson took a more conservative approach, cautioning that the most immediate use of such research would be geared toward understanding diseases and medical conditions, leading to better treatments.

While research is underway toward harvesting stem cells from the adult human body and other sources, such as placentas and amniotic fluid, and adult stem cell therapy has been used to treat some types of diseases, in vitro fertilized embryos currently remain the primary reliable source for research; thus the controversy continues.

During his career, Thomson has won many accolades, including being named one of “America’s Best in Science and Medicine” in 2001 and one of “The World’s Most Influential People in 2008 by Time magazine. His work has often been featured in professional journals as well.

Thomson is currently director of Regenerative Biology at the Morgridge Institute in Madison, Wisconsin; is a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; and serves as an adjunct professor in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

By Frank Kourt, Staff Writer

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