Democrats pounced and scientists scratched their heads this week at Wisconsin Senate candidate Tommy Thompson's decision to address a scientific conference at the Vatican.
The former governor, who is Roman Catholic, is attending a three-day event next month aimed at building support for stem cell studies that don't require the controversial destruction of human embryos, The Hill reported Monday. The conference is jointly hosted by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture and a New York-based adult stem cell company, prompting attacks from Wisconsin Democrats and concerns among Wisconsin's world-class biotech sector.
"This is a hot potato for [Thompson]," said Timothy Kamp, the director of University of Wisconsin-Madison's Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center. "Obviously with the Senate campaign he's in a place where his opponents are going to call him on this issue."
Part of the Democrats' criticism is that Thompson used to be a senior advisor for Deloitte, the auditor of Vatican partner NeoStem. He is no longer consulting for Deloitte, said Thompson aide Jason Denby.
"Washington lobbyist Tommy Thompson has ties to corporations and firms that in turn have ties to the biotech firm sponsoring an overseas conference next month where Thompson will appear in a sop to radical opponents of critical stem cell research," Mike Tate, Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, told The Hill. "Given that Thompson continues to refuse to fully disclose his various and sundry corporate ties, the public has no assurance that Thompson isn't using his influence as a former cabinet secretary, governor and now candidate for the U.S. Senate to boost the profits of … an out-of-state firm directly in competition with Wisconsin's considerable stem cell biotech interests."
Darrin Schmitz, a consultant for the Tommy Thompson for Senate campaign committee, called the Democratic charges "false and misleading." Schmitz said Thompson was introduced to NeoStem through a friend.
"Tommy Thompson has publicly disclosed his financial interests in the past and will do so again," Schmitz said. "You cannot run for federal or state office without a financial disclosure."
Questions remain about what exactly Thompson will say at the conference, however. The candidate could not be reached for comment.
The Vatican and some scientists believe adult stem cells hold great promise, thanks to new discoveries about their ability to differentiate into various cell types, without the ethical concerns and risk of rejection of embryonic stem cells. But Kamp, who is also a co-founder of a Madison stem cell company, said embryonic stem cells remain the "gold standard" and that there's "no scientific evidence" that they're not needed anymore.
"The jury is still out," he said. "We don't know what stem cell sources are going to be the best."
Thompson is slated to discuss "the social and political challenges" of stem cell medicine. It's a topic he's intimately familiar with: He was secretary of Health and Human Services between 2001 and 2005 when President George W. Bush signed an executive order restricting federal funding to a limited number of existing embryonic stem cell lines.
Thompson has in the past been a champion of embryonic stem cell research.
As governor, he caught flak from anti-abortion groups for praising embryonic stem cell research pioneer Jamie Thomson in his 1999 State of the State speech. And speaking at the 2008 World Stem Cell Summit in Madison, Wis., he said he pressed Bush to allow federal funding against the advice of presidential adviser Karl Rove.
"We debated for an hour," Thompson said, according to WisBusiness.com. "I finally turned to the president with my closing remarks … 'You can double the money for [the National Institutes of Health], you can give more money for cancer research, but if you do not allow the funding for embryonic stem cells you will always be remembered as the person who stopped research on stem cells."
Now Wisconsin researchers are worried that Thompson could change tunes in his quest for the Republican nomination.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Jamie Thomson derived the first human embryonic stem cell line in 1998, remains a world leader in the field. And the state now hosts a world-class biotech industry derived from that research.
Based on Thompson's past support for the university's research, Kamp said he expects the candidate to take a middle-of-the-road approach of supporting adult stem cell research but not to the exclusion of research involving embryos.
"I don't think Tommy Thompson is going to take a script from the Vatican and read it off, is my guess," he said.
But if a senator from Wisconsin were to come out against embryonic research, Kamp said, that could hurt the state's biotech sector.
"It would send a message about the attractiveness of the state for biotechnology and the openness for unrestricted ability to do the research that needs to be done," he said. "We're working hard to make Wisconsin welcoming and want to avoid any sort of distractions."