As Irving Weissman drives past Cannery Row in Monterey, California, in a light rain, he waves an open palm like an impresario, showing off the picturesque bay and craggy coastline. "Spectacular," Weissman says as he pulls onto the grounds of the Hopkins Marine Station. He's a distinguished immunologist, best known for his studies of blood cells, but he's also a straight-shooting Montana native who sports the type of rugged beard you might expect on a fur trader, his father's profession. When he sees David Epel walking by, Weissman stops his black Lexus sedan and lowers a window.
"How can you sleep at night?" asks Epel, a marine biologist who investigates fertilization in sea urchins.
"Nobody can," smiles Weissman.
Epel and Weissman are marveling over the decision made by the voters of California in November 2004 to spend up to $3 billion in the state over the next ten years on human embryonic stem cell research. Known as Proposition 71, the initiative has created a gold rush fever that's caught the attention of stem cell scientists everywhere. Many prospectors envision rewards well beyond dollars: new treatments and possibly cures for a wide array of medical conditions, such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, cancer and heart disease.
Passage of the stem cell referendum sent a blaring signal to Washington. President Bush, backed by leading Republicans in Congress who share his beliefs that a human embryo has the same moral rights as a person, has strictly limited the use of federal funds to pursue this avenue of scientific inquiry. One bill in the U.S. Senate even proposes to criminalize what Weissman and others see as the single most promising aspect of the research—the ability to use an ailing patient's own cells to develop treatments. So Prop. 71, which was supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and garnered a whopping 59 percent of the vote, is almost a declaration of secession. And New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Wisconsin and several other states have proposed similar legislation to fund stem cell research within their own borders. Even so, some stem cell scientists in the United States worry that they are falling behind their colleagues in other countries.
Weissman, who has a small lab at the Hopkins Marine Station and a much larger one 90 miles away at its parent institution, Stanford University, played a starring role in the Prop. 71 campaign. He helped shape the proposition and attracted crucial funding for it, meeting privately with politicians, influential Hollywood producers and other deep-pocketed supporters including Bill Gates. Weissman also became a go-to expert for the news media and even starred in a TV ad for the "Yes on 71" campaign. He has taken up the cause before the U.S. Congress, President Bush's Council on Bioethics and the late Pope John Paul II, warning at every turn that limiting or blocking stem cell research would hamper development of potential treatments and cures—a moral dilemma of its own.
The stem cell frontier provokes some of the most contentious questions in society: When does life begin? Should religious belief play a role in shaping laws and regulations? How much should governments limit research? Does the fate of an embryo matter as much as the health of a living person?
Weissman stumbled into the issue in 2001 when he chaired a National Academies panel on cloning, a scientific technology that overlaps with stem cell biology. While Weissman abhors the idea of cloning humans—and the panel he chaired called for a legally enforceable ban of the procedure—he saw that using cloning technology to derive embryonic stem cells opened a new world of medical possibilities. That's when he decided to champion the idea. "I didn't choose this position, I promise you," he says. And though Weissman pioneered the discovery of stem cells in adults, his academic labs and the three biotechnology companies he co-founded, SyStemix, Inc., StemCells, Inc. and Cellerant Therapeutics, Inc., do not yet work on human embryonic stem cells. As he likes to half joke: "My advocacy of human embryonic stem cell research is in fact probably felt by my companies to be competitive to their interests."
Before leaving Epel at the Hopkins Marine Station, Weissman confides that he is attempting to lure a prominent human embryonic stem cell researcher from Massachusetts to Stanford—part of Weissman's continued efforts to bolster California's prominence in the field. The researcher is scheduled to lecture at the Hopkins Marine Station. "I thought I would drive him down and try to convince him how nice the West Coast is," says Weissman. Then he gazes at Monterey Bay and grins. "Let's hope it's really sunny that day," he says.
Stem cells, unlike all the other cells in the body, can copy themselves indefinitely. So-called adult stem cells are found in many parts of the body, constantly rejuvenating the brain, remodeling arteries so blood can scoot around clogs, and growing new skin to heal wounds. Virtually no one objects to studies on adult stem cells. In a landmark experiment in 1988, Weissman's lab isolated adult stem cells from mouse bone marrow. These mouse stem cells were able to create the entire fleet of blood cells, including lymphocytes that help form the immune system, platelets that promote clotting, and red blood cells that shuttle oxygen to tissues. Three years later, Weissman's lab isolated similar adult stem cells from humans. The discovery paved the way to improved bone marrow transplantation in cancer patients who had received radiation or chemotherapy.