Former HHS secretary Thompson urges Obama to appoint stem cell commission

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on Wednesday urged President Obama to take the lead in promoting adult stem cell research and give the divisive debate over embryonic stem cells a rest.

Thompson made the comments at an international Vatican conference aimed at building support for stem cell research that doesn't require the ethically charged destruction of human embryos. The Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate did not criticize embryonic stem cell research but instead urged the White House to embrace promising work with adult stem cells.

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"When I talk to the average American about adult stem cells, many of them are really surprised," Thompson said, according to his prepared remarks. "All they have ever heard about are embryonic stem cells and this political battle about who is right and wrong. They see the constant finger pointing in Washington — and instead of focusing on 'what we can do right now' with adult stem cells, our leaders argue about 'what we should not do' with embryonic stem cells."

Thompson has been a strong supporter of embryonic stem cell research in the past, both as Wisconsin's governor and as Health and Human Services Secretary under former President George W. Bush. He paved the way for Bush's 2001 executive order allowing research on a limited number of existing lines, which Obama expanded in 2009.

Thompson's participation in the Vatican conference had caused a stir in his home state, where he's the favorite GOP candidate to beat Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) in the race for retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl's seat. State Democrats had criticized his appearance at the conference, and state scientists and biotech firms — the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a world leader in embryonic stem cell research — worried that he would reverse his earlier support for their work.

Instead, Thompson urged Obama to create a presidential-level commission of private sector business leaders to promote adult stem cell research.

"This group should evaluate all of the Federal efforts to date surrounding regenerative medicine," he said, "and they should make specific recommendations to our President on how we can better coordinate these efforts and unite them with the best of private enterprise."