James Thomson: the Shy Pioneer of the Stem Cell
He is the still center of a scientific and ethical storm, slight, laconic and reticent in the extreme. As the first researcher to reproduce embryonic stem cells—raw, unspecified cells that eventually can "differentiate," developing into specialized tissue in the body—James Thomson may well have ushered in a new era in medicine. Scientists hope one day to be able to direct the growth of stem cells in the lab, targeting them to replace damaged tissue and offering hope to those who suffer from Parkinson's, leukemia, spinal cord injury and many other intractable afflictions. Thomson's breakthrough also ignited a controversy that has swirled from the Capitol to the Vatican: To extract embryonic stem cells one must destroy the embryo, inciting some to excoriate the research as immoral. What's more, "the press coverage has made it very difficult to get any work done," laments the 43-year-old University of Wisconsin anatomy professor, who speaks grudgingly to selected print media but spurns all interviews on TV. In fact, he doesn't even own one of the contraptions. On Aug. 9 President Bush announced limited federal funding for existing stem cell lines, a compromise Thomson approves of. "I think basic research will go along just fine," he says. The understatement is typical. "Jamie is very self-effacing—the last person in a lineup to point to as one of the biggest superstars of science in the 21st century," says Dr. Norman Fost, who chairs Wisconsin's bioethics advisory committee, noting that Thomson consulted him long before first culturing stem cells in 1998. "He is a model in terms of moral responsibility." The younger son of an accountant and a secretary, Thomson grew up in River Forest, III., and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. Married to a neurobiologist and the father of two, he sees limitless potential in his field. "I have 22 years left until retirement," he says. "I think we will understand a great deal in that time."
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