Monday, May 28, 2012

California Stem Cell Hoopdedoo Over Rick Perry: Strange Bedfellows and Education of Politicians

A onetime aspirant to become the leader of the free world was in California recently touring the lab of a stem cell researcher in La Jolla.

The visit was somewhat unusual. The visitor was Rick Perry, the governor of Texas who campaigned unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for president and who is a strong opponent of hESC research. The lab is run by Scripps' Jeanne Loring, who engages in hESC research among other things.

The event – if you can call it that – also led to a video on YouTube of Perry at the lab, three blog items by UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler and responses from Loring and Michael Thorsnes,  who put up the video and who has what he modestly describes as "significant political experience" in the Democratic party. Thorsnes, a retired San Diego lawyer and now a photographer, raised about $5.4 million for John Kerry's and Al Gore's presidential efforts as well as other Democrats.

Issues raised in all the hoopdedoo include consorting with the enemy, openness, exploitation of scientists for political gain, public education and education of political leaders, promotion of patient causes, rushing to judgment and even strange bedfellows.

As far as we can tell, Perry's visit received no attention in mainstream media, but Thorsnes, a key figure in arranging the visit, put up a video of it on the Internet. Knoepfler, who is the rare stem cell scientist with a blog, saw the video and on May 21 raised what he now calls "a big stink" in a blog posting. Subsequently Knoepfler toned down the language in that item because of what he says was its "overly extreme verbiage."

For several years now, Knoepfler has been writing a fine blog that deals mostly with stem cell science but also public policy, biotech business and more. Unfortunately, however, his original item is no longer available, but our recollection is that Knoepler's item was strong, indicating that Loring should not have allowed the visit because it would bolster the political fortunes of an enemy of science or at least hESC science. Knoepfler cited what he called the campaign-style video as evidence of exploitation. 

On May 24, after a related May 22 item dealing with Rick Perry, Knoepfler said he rewrote the original item to temper his comments as a result of learning more about what led up to the visit.   That included more information from Thorsnes, who is chair of the executive advisory board of the Parkinson’s Disease Association of San Diego. 

Loring was quoted in original item as saying, 
"I think that scientists have an obligation to educate the public. I welcome visits from both stem cell proponents and opponents, so I have a chance to clarify any misconceptions about what it is that we really do. We have to figure out how to deal with our opponents as well as our friends. I have a policy of welcoming opponents so I can teach them. It works. Education wins minds."
The California Stem Cell Report queried Loring about any additional comments she had on the subject. She replied,
"Governor Rick Perry left my lab understanding far more about induced pluripotent stem cells than he did when he arrived. If we don't engage those who don't share our views, who will tell them the truth? How will they know that we are ethical and working to improving human health? 
"The visit was arranged by Michael Thorsnes, a well-known Democratic fundraiser. He is a very impressive person who knows politicians of every stripe, and he arranged the meeting with Perry so that I could explain our project to make iPSCs from people with Parkinson's disease, and our work using iPSC derivatives in multiple sclerosis. Perry is promoting 'adult' stem cell therapy in Texas, and I wanted to be sure that he understood the difference between 'adult' stem cells and pluripotent stem cells. He does. Educating those in positions of power is one of our responsibilities, and I take it very seriously."
Our take: Perry is first and foremost a politician with large ambitions. It is more than legitimate to think about how such a visit might be used or misused. Nonetheless, foregoing the opportunity to educate political leaders, who control research spending in this country, means isolation of the scientific community and less understanding on the part of lawmakers. As far as Perry's possible political gain is concerned, it is conceivable that the visit could backfire on Perry should a political opponent characterize the Loring lab tour as some sort of endorsement by him of hESC research.

Everybody's particular interests were at work in this episode: Thorsnes' desire for support for his cause, Perry's political schmoozing and his own special interest in stem cells – pro adult and con hESC, and Loring's desire to promote scientific research in general and to educate a major political figure.

As for the video, Knoepfler now says he would allow a lab visit by Perry but no video. But in this digital age, that condition could kill a likely visit. If researchers want to talk to politicians – and they should -- risks are always involved, but that is the price of relying on public funding and building public enthusiasm for continued support.

One final note: Earlier in this item, we said it was unfortunate that the original Knoepfler post is not available. Without being able to read the original, it is difficult to completely understand the subsequent string of events. On the California Stem Cell Report, when corrections or other changes are made, we always retain something to show what the original item said and note where changes are made and why. It keeps the record straight and provides a necessary paper trail. All in all, however, from Perry's visit to today, it has been a robust and healthy exchange for the stem cell community and beyond.


  1. Anonymous4:27 PM

    Your article was very accurate with respect to Gov. Perry's recent visit. I arranged the visit in connection with my chairmanship of the Executive Advisory Board of the Parkinson's Association of San Diego. In your conclusion, you hit the nail on the head--this is an issue which must ultimately rise above political partisanship. Gov. Perry's visit will hopefully be but a first effort in our commitment to lessen politicization of the issue. The purpose of the video was to reach above that fray. The work and those doing it is the real focus of the piece.

    Michael Thorsnes,
    Chair of the Executive Advisory Board for
    The Parkinsons' Association of San Diego,
    and its program "The Parkinson's Coordinated Attack Alliance"

  2. I agree with Mike that the focus should be on transcending politics to advance the science and translation to the clinic.

  3. I agree with Mike that the focus should be on transcending the politics to advance the science and the translation of stem cell technology to the clinic. I look forward to working together to make this a reality. One of the great things about running a stem cell blog over the years is all the amazing people, such as Mike, that I get to meet on that road. I'm guessing, David, that you feel the same about all the people you've met via your blog over the years.

  4. You are right, Paul. Lots of interesting people are involved in stem cells. I have enjoyed meeting them and have learned a lot from what they have had to say.


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