doctor tracy deisher
Image: Young Lee

BENEATH THE SOARING CEILING OF the Assumption Catholic Church parish hall in Seattle’s Bryant neighborhood, biotechnologist Dr. Theresa "Tracy" Deisher brandishes her PowerPoint clicker like the staff of Moses.

She addresses her audience in the patient tone of one who’s had to accommodate slower folks her whole life. The trim 48-year-old Seattle scientist is modestly dressed in a charcoal jacket and slacks; her eyeglasses, graying hair, and delicate cross at her throat projecting a prim, Church Lady decorum. Only the flash of scarlet from the camisole at her neckline betrays something more like swagger.

"I’ve worked at the largest biotech companies in the world and have over 22 published patents in the U.S.," she informs the group, mostly her fellow parishioners from Assumption. Her subject this winter evening is stem cells, but her message pits her squarely at odds with the scientific establishment. Human embryonic stem cells will not cure our most devastating diseases, she explains. Worse, when injected into living creatures, these cells put their extraordinary growing powers to dangerous use. They grow tumors.

Embryonic stem cells are the most primitive building blocks of life, able to develop into any cell in the body. Embryonic stem cells, after all, grow babies. Deisher’s career, by contrast, has centered on adult stem cells—cells available from anyone’s own body, that develop into tissue of only one type. She believes they do a better job of curing disease than embryonic—and they hold another advantage not lost on the gathered faithful in this parish hall. They don’t require the destruction of embryos.

Deisher, petite, even a little shy, belts her jeremiad: We are pouring taxpayer dollars into embryonic stem cell research when we could be funding adult stem cell treatments that are safer, more effective, and more affordable!

And that’s why Dr. Tracy Deisher is suing the U.S. government.

THERE MAY BE NO SCIENTIFIC enterprise that more nearly resembles the work of the Creator than regenerative medicine. Stem cells grow the tissue that builds us. The discovery of the first human embryonic stem cells in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin promised to revolutionize medicine, assuring cures to afflictions from heart disease and Parkinson’s to diabetes and cancer. Embryonic stem cells, derived from four- to five-day-old embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, are inexhaustibly productive, doubling in petri dishes every 12 hours. Their magic is their capacity to differentiate into every cell type in the body-a characteristic called pluripotency.

Deisher understands her colleagues’ enthusiasm for pluripotency; after all, she claims, controversially, to have discovered the first adult pluripotent stem cell while working at Seattle’s ZymoGenetics. Pluripotency gives human embryonic stem cells their futuristic applications—they’re the science behind cloning. They’re just no good therapeutically, she warns—and laypeople aren’t hearing that message. So she, from her pro-life biotech offices on Seattle’s First Hill, has established herself as its prophet—careful as any spinmeister to couch her arguments in the apolitical language of science instead of religion and using every ounce of her obvious intellectual firepower to influence the next great debate in biotech ethics.

Tracy Deisher has never lacked for drive. Even as a child growing up in Bellevue and Seattle she evinced the smarts and independence—even occasional arrogance—that have marked her career. The middle of three sisters, the straight-A student graduated top of her class from Holy Names Academy, the private Catholic girls’ high school on Capitol Hill.

"I’ve always been astute," she replied this spring when asked for a word to describe herself. Sometimes she annoyed her friends—like when she read the dictionary—but she would still go out with them on Friday nights after a few solid hours in the UW astrophysics laboratory. She taught herself calculus so she could enter a state competition to plot the orbit of Mars. When she had extra time before the deadline, she designed a spacecraft and threw in the flight path as well. She took first place.

Deisher’s Catholicism was bred in her from birth by her mother’s deep devotion. Divorced from Tracy’s dad when the girls were young, Barbara Requa remarried a former priest and attended mass every day.

A post-high school summer job in 1980 at the Swedish Hospital pathology lab brought Tracy into her first contact with a miscarried fetus. Though her mother was zealously pro-life, Deisher had grown up with two pro-choice aunts. One had tried to march the young Deisher off to Planned Parenthood for birth control before she’d even been kissed. Her aunts believed that a baby wasn’t human until it could survive outside the womb; that it was just a clump of cells resembling a space alien.

As she looked at the actual fetus before her, fixed in the formaldehyde that lent it a shriveled otherworldliness, the teenage Deisher was stricken: It did look like a space alien. She helped to section the fetus for its autopsy, but, she says, something shifted in her that day. "I thought, ‘My aunts were right, that’s not a baby.’" If the Church could lie about that, she wondered, what else was it lying about? "Whatever faith I had went right in the garbage can."