Meet ‘the Sarah Palin of stem cells’

It can be lonely in the scientific community for a pro-life stem-cell researcher, as Theresa Deisher is discovering. In its latest issue, the scientific journal Nature profiles Deisher’s work — and her role as one of the co-plaintiffs in a case to discontinue federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Suffice it to say, her conviction that ESCR destroys human life hasn’t exactly made her popular with her colleagues.

Deisher wasn’t always pro-life (though she was raised Catholic and has since returned to the faith, rising at 3:45 every morning to pray the rosary while riding her stationary bike), but a few important events in her career changed her mind. In one, after isolating what she believed were pluripotent stem cells from adult cardiac muscle, the reaction from other scientists to her findings shocked her:

Many of her colleagues at Zymogenetics reacted with “ferocious hostility”, Deisher says. She recalls one scientist who cornered her, spittle flying from her mouth, shouting: “Adult stem cells do not exist outside the haematopoietic system! Who the blank do you think you are, God?” Deisher was ordered, she says, to stop working on the cells.

The company abandoned the patent application in 2004, but Deisher remains unapologetic about her claims. The website for AVM proclaims: “Dr. Deisher was the first person world-wide to identify and patent stem cells from the adult heart. Her discovery remains one of the most significant discoveries in the area of stem cell research.” And the vehemence with which colleagues resisted “made me open my eyes”, Deisher says, to the very real — and, she says, unscientific — passions that can infect defenders of scientific orthodoxy. Science, she reasoned, was not so objective after all.

 

Partially as a result of that reaction, Deisher mortgaged her retirement savings to start up AVM Biotechnology (yes, that’s short for Ave Maria), “which is dedicated to hastening adult-stem-cell therapies to the market, and to developing alternatives to vaccines and therapeutics made using cell lines from aborted fetuses.” And her role as one of the co-plaintiffs in the suit seeking to end federal funding for embryo-destructive research (currently held up in the Court of Appeals for the Disctrict of Columbia Circuit) could have huge national implications.

Deisher is clearly a polarizing figure — a long-term colleague of hers called her “the Sarah Palin of stem cells.” And as the real Sarah Palin could tell you, being the Sarah Palin of anything can be a double-edged sword: She is obviously committed to her beliefs, but to some (especially within the scientific community), her approach can be off-putting. But to her, the argument is simple:

“It’s very difficult to get passionately, morally protective of what physically truly is a clump of cells,” she says. “But that is a human being. Scientifically, you can’t debate that.”

Read the whole thing here.

Margaret Cabaniss

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Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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