Like many researchers, UW-Madison neuroscientist Ronald Kalil would not classify himself as a very political person. He doesn't subscribe to a specific party and tries to "keep an open mind about all sides of an issue." His primary commitment is to cutting edge research, searching for regenerative therapies for brain injuries.
But Kalil has not been able to avoid getting pulled into a political debate. That's because the neural cells he uses in his laboratory are derived from human embryonic stem cells.
Kalil is not alone. Many other scientists in Wisconsin find themselves uncomfortably in the midst of a political dust-up regarding embryonic stem cells. Republican candidates Scott Walker, who's leading the polls in the race for Wisconsin governor, and Ron Johnson, who is clinging to a narrow lead in the state race for U.S. Senate, have pledged to roll back state and federal support for this research.
"None of [the scientists] want to spend an inordinate amount of time with politics, that's not why they chose the careers they did," says Tim Kamp, director of the UW Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center. But a byproduct of the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells has prompted many researchers, whether by choice or necessity, to get involved.
Pro-life organizations like Wisconsin Right to Life -- whose website features an essay titled "Fetal Farming" about a future where scientists harvest babies for tissue -- oppose all embryonic stem cell research and have classified stem cell scientists, to some degree, as baby killers -- a classification that doesn't sit well with scientists.
"We are not immoral or unethical people," says Kalil. "We are dedicated scientists busting our backs 10 sometimes 12 hours a day in the lab to see if we can help people."
But confusion exists in the public over where scientists obtain embryonic stem cells. The embryos used are donated, in place of being destroyed, by couples who undergo in vitro fertilization -- a process that consists of the production of extra embryos.
Thousands of embryos are destroyed each year as a consequence of in vitro fertilization. Since the beginning of embryonic stem cell research at the UW-Madison more than 15 years ago, only about 100 embryos have been destroyed by research, says Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
"If the embryo would be destroyed anyway," says Kalil, "we have a moral obligation to say, 'Let's see if we can use it and bring some betterment to humanity.'"
In a basement laboratory at the UW Medical Sciences building, Kalil and his four graduate students use the human-derived neural cells in rodents to actively study the possibilities of regenerative brain growth. The researchers simulate common head injuries that could be caused in a moped accident or by a collision with a windshield.
According to a recent Harris poll, 72% of adults support embryonic stem cell research. But opposition to this research is a critical issue on the religious right and thus has been embraced by people running for public office.
In his campaign, Walker has said he opposes state funding for the research. Still calls this a "poor fort," because state funding is nearly negligible when compared to private and federal outlets. Indeed, there are currently no state grants for stem cell research in Wisconsin.
Walker, says Still, has not publicly committed to seeking a state ban on embryonic stem cell research. A statewide ban exists in South Dakota and Walker told abortion opponents this spring that he would support such a ban in Wisconsin. But he and his campaign have refused to confirm that stance, possibly fearing backlash from voters enthused by the long-term potential of this research to produce new treatments for Parkinson's, diabetes and traumatic spinal cord injuries.
Walker says he opposes the destruction of human life for the sake of research and plans -- if elected -- to support adult stem cell research rather than embryonic. This stance has garnered him the support of pro-life voters and pro-life groups, but angered many scientists.
Stephen Duncan, a stem cell researcher at the Wisconsin Medical School in Milwaukee, calls some of Walker's statements about the possibilities of adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells "blatant lies," because Walker has implied that adult stem cells hold as much promise as embryonic stem cells.
That adult stem cells hold the same potential as embryonic stem cells is simply not true, says Duncan, who works with both types of cells in his lab.
With the first human clinical trial underway in Atlanta, the realities of embryonic stem cell therapy seem to be accelerating. Duncan worries that if Wisconsin were to elect a governor who is unreceptive toward embryonic stem cell research, the state could lose out on billions of dollars. He also worries that if the atmosphere toward this research becomes too hostile here, graduate students at Wisconsin schools will shy away from stem cell research and senior researchers could pack up and go elsewhere -- like to California, which gives 300 million a year to fund stem cell research.
Duncan, a native of Scotland who has lived in Milwaukee for 13 years, says he wants to stay in Wisconsin, but hasn't ruled out returning to his native country, where stem cell scientists operate more freely, if his work becomes impossible here. David Gamm, a stem cell researcher at the UW-Madison, says "the potential to leave Wisconsin is real," if his $2 million in federal funding were jeopardized by Walker, though Gamm strongly expressed his desire to stay and continue his research as long as he can in Wisconsin -- a state he has grown to love.
Previous Wisconsin governors; including Democrat Jim Doyle and Republican Tommy Thompson, have been strong proponents of embryonic stem cell research.
Tom Still, in a recent essay, posed an interesting question: What if James Thomson, the father of stem cell research at the UW-Madison, won a Nobel Prize for his work and wasn't even welcome in his home state?