Reluctant Star

With UW-Madison’s stem cell research making news around the globe, the man behind the breakthrough discoveries would just as soon stay out of the media’s glare.

Who doesn’t know about stem cells? If you have a disease such as diabetes or Parkinson’s, you might see the all-purpose cells as a glimmer of hope for treating a horrible affliction. If you believe life begins at conception, even if sperm and egg were united in a dish and will never see a womb, using stem cells derived from days-old embryos, which are destroyed in the process, is akin to taking a human life. If you are a biologist, embryonic stem cells are a window to the untold story of early human development. This knowledge could one day rival even the heralded wonders of the übercells as a limitless source of customized material of all kinds for transplant.

Stem cells, of course, are all these things and more. They are in the political arena, with President George W. Bush refusing to fund most research on the controversial cells, thus yielding biomedical initiative to states including California and governments in Asia and Europe. They are a business opportunity, prized as a means to test the safety of new drugs or even to transform the cells themselves into microscopic factories for producing novel medicines.

Stem cells are also media darlings. Since November 1998, when the world’s first human embryonic stem cell lines burst from the obscurity of a small UW-Madison laboratory, hardly a day passes without someone asking me about stem cells.

And for all the reasons above, stem cells are also media darlings. Since November 1998, when the world’s first human embryonic stem cell lines burst from the obscurity of a small UW-Madison laboratory, hardly a day passes without someone asking me about stem cells — a reporter seeking an authoritative source, an art director in need of a picture, a student working on a term paper, a moralist ready to debate, or, most disquieting, someone who is terribly ill and looking for hope.

For the sick and those with ethical objections, I have no good answers. Because of where they come from, embryonic stem cells will always be controversial. And for all of their potential, the all-purpose cells remain an unfulfilled promise. Even well-funded science takes decades to move from lab bench to bedside.

But if you are a reporter, I might be able to help. UW-Madison boasts one of the world’s great concentrations of stem cell research. It has a stable of terrific researchers, including the world’s most famous stem cell scientist, James A. Thomson.

The rub, of course, is that everyone wants to interview Thomson. And Thomson — or Jamie, as friends and acquaintances know him — would rather be interviewed by no one.

My introduction to stem cells and to Thomson occurred in the summer of 1998. It was months before his landmark paper describing the first cultured human embryonic stem cells would be published in the journal Science, but there was much to do, including overcoming my ignorance of stem cells and their potential for biomedical science and controversy. For his part, Thomson would have to endure a crash course in what to expect from journalists and he would have to submit to the camera, which was no small concession.

For a man who dreads the media spotlight, Thomson gives a tantalizing interview. He is articulate and to the point, and he can describe his work and its implications in comprehensible terms. He does not overstate. He is sincere and thoughtful in his convictions, and he is willing to explain his motivations and how he came to terms with the ethical dilemma of using human embryos for research. He speaks very quickly, but almost everything he says is meaningful.

“Two minutes on the phone with him is worth hours with anybody else in the field,” says Associated Press medical writer Marilynn Marchione. “He doesn’t make it easy. You have to do your homework, but any insight he lends is well worth whatever effort you have to put in to prepare.”

For a science press officer, the everyday problem is getting reporters to pay attention. At a research university such as UW-Madison, there is no shortage of good science, and I tend to take the view that it is all important. But in a hypercompetitive news environment, with ever-shrinking news holes and coverage of research viewed by most news organizations as a luxury, getting science into the public eye can be a hard and frustrating job. That’s never been the case with Jamie Thomson’s work.

Even before his 1998 study made international headlines, Thomson was an inadvertent newsmaker: his derivation of the world’s first non-human primate embryonic stem cells from rhesus macaques in 1995 was disclosed over a cocktail by a colleague to an ever-vigilant science reporter. A story about that unpublished study was on the news wire the next day.

But when Thomson established the world’s first human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998, the world’s press made a virtual mad dash for Wisconsin. Occupying an office next to mine in Bascom Hall for about a week and a half, Thomson did nothing but interviews. Scores of interviews. From the New York Times and the Washington Post, to National Public Radio and the BBC, to key Wisconsin news organizations such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal, Thomson patiently answered the same questions over and over and over. My phone — Thomson’s number is not given out and his voicemail greeting directs reporters to me — didn’t stop ringing for three weeks.

“I think of Jamie as the Chuck Yeager of biology — working at the very edge of the envelope, and yet curiously, almost maddeningly, laconic when pressed to talk about what he has done or plans to do next.”

Most recently, when Thomson and colleague Junying Yu reprogrammed adult skin cells to revert to an embryonic-like state, another media frenzy was set in motion. Less than a week before this most recent paper was published, Thomson e-mailed me. “Do you have time to come over this afternoon?” he asked. “I’m going to take up a considerable amount of your time next week.”

Understatement is a character trait of Wisconsin’s most famous biologist. It drives reporters crazy. “I think of Jamie as the Chuck Yeager of biology — working at the very edge of the envelope, and yet curiously, almost maddeningly, laconic when pressed to talk about what he has done or plans to do next,” laments Rick Weiss, science reporter for the Washington Post. “The guy seems to have made it a personal challenge to understate his accomplishments, killing every effort to get a dramatic quote or a jazzy sense of where the science is going.”

Thomson is also a killjoy for TV reporters. He does not own a television. During my decade working with him, I’ve managed to arrange two television interviews, PBS’s News Hour and CBS’s 60 Minutes. Most recently, I’ve turned away Nightline, BBC documentarians, CNN, and a flock of others, including exasperated local television reporters, who were hoping to interview the reluctant Thomson on camera. As I write this, at the behest of Nova executive producer Paula Apsell — an individual who does not typically call lowly press officers — I hope to convince Thomson to open the lab door a crack, and 60 Minutes is trolling for seconds. I am not optimistic.

A primary consideration for Thomson is time. When you publish groundbreaking science and add controversy to the mix, it is irresistible news. And good reporters must go to the source. The catch is there isn’t enough source to go around. And Thomson is equally protective of his lab and the time of his colleagues. Among my instructions regarding the most recent feat from his lab was a request to guard the time of Yu, the young molecular biologist who performed much of the heavy lifting to identify the genes that could spin ordinary skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells — cells that seem to have all the golden qualities of embryonic stem cells without the baggage.

I am a reluctant gatekeeper. I hate to decline a reporter’s request as much as Thomson hates to grant it. After all, my job is to keep Wisconsin’s research profile high, and managing discovery rather than exploiting it to the fullest is a different kind of challenge, although in the case of Jamie Thomson and stem cells, it’s a necessary one.

At a practical level, if Thomson were to grant every interview request, his career in one of biology’s most competitive fields would be over, as there would be little time remaining to write grant proposals and papers, maintain a lab, and do research.

Thomson’s reticence, I believe, is rooted in cultural, personal, and practical considerations. Science, for the most part, does not put a lot of value on visibility in popular media. At a practical level, if Thomson were to grant every interview request, his career in one of biology’s most competitive fields would be over, as there would be little time remaining to write grant proposals and papers, maintain a lab, and do research. And I think what Thomson most wants to be is a successful, productive scientist.

At a personal level, humility is probably at play as well. “While Washington sources will often withhold details in order to be coy or to build interest or suspense,” says the Washington Post’s Weiss, “Jamie’s one-word answers seem to come from an honest-to-goodness humility, a trait so rare that it leaves reporters like me a little flummoxed. I’ll ask a question three ways just to get him to say the obvious, and he just will not do it. He wants to wait until the work is replicated. Or until it’s published. Or until he understands the results better. It is infuriating!”

Despite the politics that hamstring embryonic stem cell research and the rush to capitalize on Thomson’s discoveries in places far removed from Madison, Wisconsin remains a leading center of stem cell science, due in large measure to Thomson’s influential work. As many as forty groups at UW-Madison do some kind of stem cell research, and a number of labs are dedicated completely to unraveling the mysteries of the all-purpose stem cell. Years of work remain before the promise of the science is realized.

In the meantime, stem cells will continue to be controversial and make news, my phone will ring, and maybe — maybe — I’ll be able to help. But chances are I can’t.