Dr. Deisher’s Stem Cell Crusade

When pro-life biotechnologist Tracy Deisher sued to halt federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, it rocked the biotech universe. What’s driving the Seattle researcher to kill the promise of medicine’s greatest hope?

By Kathryn Robinson July 22, 2011 Published in the August 2011 issue of Seattle Met

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."

{page break}

Deisher in Her Lab at AVM The for-profit biotech is dedicated to the discovery of pro-life medicines.

Image: Young Lee

THUS SHE PACKED OFF FOR Stanford University a "radical feminist," with no use for religion. She defined herself not just as pro-choice, but pro-abortion, and encouraged other women to have abortions, telling them it wasn’t really a baby—an act she now likens to driving the trains to the Nazi death camps.

Her freshman roommate Tamara Nelsen remembers Deisher as independent, competitive, and ambitious—more earnest than radically feminist, finding time to pursue volunteer work, pointing out to their professors potentially misleading flaws in their research studies. "We were truth seekers," Nelsen says.

After graduation, she stayed at Stanford to pursue a PhD in molecular and cellular physiology, where she worked with scientists who were advancing the hypothesis, controversial in the ’80s, that beta blocking might be beneficial treatment for heart conditions. This was so against prevailing thinking, one reviewer of their work suggested they were on hallucinogens. Today, beta blockers are a standard of care for heart-related issues.

It was Deisher’s first real taste of challenging the status quo. "Why would anyone just accept dogma instead of testing it?" she says. If her undergrad years were spent testing the dogma of her Catholic upbringing, by grad school Catholicism was passing the test. The big aha came in anatomy class, when she saw her first adult cadaver. The pickled look of the miscarried fetus she’d seen as a teenager wasn’t proof of its inhuman essence—it was merely the effect of the formaldehyde. It was a decisive turning point for Deisher, who realized with shame how wrong she had been to throw out the baby, as it were, with the Catholic bathwater.

ONE EVENING IN THE EARLY ’90s, back in Seattle after a first job on the East Coast, Deisher accompanied her parents to mass. Since Deisher had fallen from her faith, Requa and her husband had been praying the nine-day devotions called novenas on her behalf, and made pilgrimages to the shrines at Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorje to beg St. Joseph to have Jesus bring Tracy back to the church. After they returned from mass, Deisher had but one word: wow.

"What do I think? Do I believe in God?" Deisher pondered. She pored over the Bible to judge for herself; a scientist in search of the missing "whys" in the faith she’d had drilled into her from birth. It made sense to her. Catholicism calls its followers to reach for the very best within themselves—a goal she deemed consistent with science.

In 1995, Deisher went to work for ZymoGenetics, the Seattle biotech and drug development company, where she once again found herself on the wrong side of conventional wisdom. With the discovery of the first human embryonic stem cells still three years off, all researchers had were adult stem cells: slow growing, available only from blood-forming tissues of the body, and multipotent—that is, able only to grow into cells of similar tissue types.

Among Deisher’s first tasks at ZymoGenetics was an experiment using heart muscle cells that left behind intriguing tiny cells in the dish. She kept them in culture and within a few weeks saw them begin to differentiate into other cell types-heart muscle, connective tissue, skin, bone, cartilage—just like embryonic stem cells do. "When I looked in the microscope I just said, ‘Holy shit!’" Deisher recalls, apologizing for the profanity. "It was phenomenal to behold!"

Deisher brought in consultants to look at her cultures, and, she says, they dropped their jaws in awe. One, Dr. Michael D. Schneider, now the director of the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence at Imperial College London, remembers the display seemed "novel and encouraging." Another, a fellow ZymoGenetics scientist who asked not to be identified, found them promising—but lacking convincing data.

ZymoGenetics took her off the project, which Deisher says was due to the "ferocious hostility" from her fellow scientists. She continued to nurture her cultures in her free time, but says the inquiry was so counter to scientific dogma—that pluripotent cells didn’t exist in adults—it threatened her colleagues.

When contaminants appeared in her stem cell isolations, she even came to believe they were the result of sabotage. She tells of one colleague who cornered her, spittle flying, shouting that adult stem cells did not exist outside bone marrow. "Who the hell do you think you are, God?" the colleague sputtered.

ZymoGenetics patented Deisher’s discovery in 1998—the same year embryonic stem cells were discovered—then let it expire. The biotech company now has no comment on Deisher or the patent.

{page break}

SCIENTISTS TRIED AND FAILED to reproduce Deisher’s adult pluripotent stem cell claims. One was Chuck Murry, codirector of the University of Washington’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine. The fact is, says Murry, if her findings had been solid we’d all know it: The adult pluripotent stem cell would be one of the Holy Grails of modern science.

Murry, who has known Deisher since they were postdocs, grows exasperated discussing her. "Tracy is the Sarah Palin of stem cells," Murry says. "She’s intense and polarizing and she has an agenda: You’re either with her or against her." It is notable, indeed, that many who know Deisher don’t want to talk about her to a journalist—including ex-colleagues at ZymoGenetics, old high school friends, even two she described as scientific allies who didn’t return calls for comment.

Still, Deisher insists that her findings are being independently corroborated by Dr. Piero Anversa at Harvard and by a team at the University of Kentucky working on VSELs, or very small embryoniclike stem cells. She says that hostility to her discovery was probably inevitable. Scientists are divided between the goal of doing research versus the goal of treating patients. According to Deisher, these are directly at odds.

Deisher says researchers want embryonic stem cells because they "grow like weeds," speeding experimentation, but patients need the control and safety that come from ordinary multipotent adult stem cells. These adult stem cells grow slowly—but they also don’t grow tumors, cause immunity problems, cost as much, or, in Deisher’s words, "exploit one person for the sake of another."

Deisher enthuses over what currently available adult stem cells are doing for patients—pancreases regenerating, blind people seeing—in countries like Italy, Brazil, and Germany, thanks to those countries’ less strict federal oversights, and at much cheaper price tags than embryonic treatments. The U.S. government—through the National Institutes of Health, or NIH—indeed funds adult stem cell research, but doesn’t substantially fund the clinical trials that could lead to moneymaking FDA-approved drugs. The funding for drug trials typically comes from what Big Pharma earns from its patents. But there’s the rub: Multipotent adult stem cells, taken from an individual’s own tissues, are not patentable—and therefore won’t be funded by for-profit pharmaceutical companies.

That’s why Deisher believes adult stem cell advances can only be made with public money—public money she argues is disproportionately favoring embryonic stem cell research.

LOTS OF PEOPLE CALL TRACY Deisher a divisive ideologue; few impugn her abilities as a scientist. In the decade after leaving ZymoGenetics she worked for Immunex, then Amgen when it acquired Immunex, and then a genetics company called CellCyte. She’d gotten married and borne her first son while at ZymoGenetics; during the next decade she had her second son and sought an annulment of her marriage for reasons she won’t go into. She got full custody of her kids. Her pro-life convictions deepened.

During these same years, embryonic stem cells hit the fan politically. The discovery of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 reopened the deep wound in this country over rights of the unborn. President Clinton sought a compromise allowing federal funding for research using stem cells derived from embryos donated by in vitro fertilization clients, but not for embryos created expressly for experimentation.

The issue exploded in August 2001 when President Bush authorized federal funding only for embryonic stem cell lines already in existence—around 60 of them. Pro-embryonic camps decried the limits as senselessly restrictive and lobbied Congress to restore Clinton’s guidelines. In 2006 the Senate passed just such a bill. Bush vetoed it.

Culturally speaking, embryonic stem cell research became the new frame for the old abortion-rights debate, only with a new axis of archetypes: noble healer and suffering patient stymied by religious nut. To Deisher’s mind, that cultural context began to stifle free scientific inquiry. Scientists who advocated the superiority of adult stem cells were likely to find their grants declined and their publications rejected, she says.

This marginalization heightened Deisher’s sense of herself as wronged hero—an identity reinforced in her experience at the Seattle biotech company CellCyte. In 2006 she joined as vice president of research and development and hadn’t been there long when she became convinced that the company was exaggerating its research claims. Deisher the truth seeker blew the whistle internally, then left the company and filed suit against CellCyte to ensure that her research would remain her own.

A Seattle Times expose and SEC investigation followed, validating Deisher’s claims and more. CellCyte ultimately settled with the SEC. But Deisher believes she was victimized in the experience. According to a police report, toilet paper smeared with feces wound up in Deisher’s backyard. An email from a CellCyte address accused her of base motives and delivered a veiled threat, to leave the state. And then, a swipe at her self-righteousness: "You have allowed your feet to leave the moral ground you publicly claimed to cherish so much."

{page break}

BY THE TIME SHE LEFT CELLCYTE, Deisher had evolved into the anomalous hybrid she is today: the scientist who believes that the bread and wine of the Catholic Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ; the believer who rises in the dark—sometimes as early as 3am—to pray the Rosary on her exercise bike; the pro-life single-issue voter.

The year after she left CellCyte she delivered a speech in Olympia, where she met a four-year-old girl who’d been conceived through in vitro fertilization. Deisher was moved. Her strictly clinical disapproval of embryonic stem cell research shifted into a more personal realm. "That darling child could have been an experiment in my lab," Deisher realized. "I could have chopped her up!"

What we need, she dreamed, is a pro-life biotech research firm.

She began stopping into the Assumption Chapel every morning after dropping her boys at school, to pray. After two weeks she felt a call. She broke into her retirement account, took out a loan—and AVM Biotechnology was born.

About midway between St. Paul’s Cathedral and Swedish Hospital, AVM occupies two small offices and a lab on the third floor of an aging building fragrant with lab chemicals. Its four core employees work in cramped cubicles; a portrait of the Virgin Mary leans against a cabinet. AVM stands for Ave Maria, but Deisher avoids calling it that. Turns out the ancient invocation is trademarked.

Dedicated to the discovery of pro-life medicines, the for-profit company was conceived to do work in regenerative medicine until Catholic groups persuaded Deisher to also focus on the development of pro-life compatible vaccines. Vaccines like those for measles-mumps-rubella and chicken pox are made using fetal cell lines; AVM’s goal is to provide alternatives, and improve the research effectiveness of adult stem cells.

IN THE EAST ROOM ON MARCH 9, 2009, President Obama signed an executive order lifting the ban on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. While scientists across the land rejoiced, Deisher sat glumly in her office. The NIH issued a draft of guidelines to govern the policy and invited public comment. Deisher did, along with nearly 50,000 others.

And her phone rang.

Virginia attorney Sam Casey, representing a coalition of organizations opposed to human embryonic stem cell research, was preparing to sue the federal government if the guidelines didn’t change. They complained that the draft was in direct opposition to the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, an appropriations rider from the mid-’90s that prohibited the use of taxpayer money for the creation and/or destruction of human embryos for research purposes. In July, NIH unveiled its final guidelines, and Deisher was dismayed: Federal funds could now finance research on human embryonic stem cells derived from embryos donated from fertility clinics.

Again Deisher’s phone rang. The lawsuit was on. Casey wanted her as a plaintiff.

She’d been preparing for this decision: its effect on her fledgling company and its angels; its effect on her energies and family. By now an old hand at taking unpopular stands, she knew the toll.

What’s more, Casey had secured as his first plaintiff an even more brazen lightning rod than Deisher. James Sherley was an adult stem cell researcher from the Boston Biomedical Research Institute, known for expounding his pro-life views in protest letters to newspapers and in shouting matches in public places. The African American scientist had staged a hunger strike at MIT in 2007, for what he believed was a racially motivated denial of tenure.

Assured there’d be no such theatrics Deisher joined the suit, alongside Sherley and a raft of coplaintiffs. One of them was listed as "embryos."

The suit was filed in August of 2009, then dismissed two months later in DC District Court by a judge who ruled that none of the plaintiffs had standing to sue. Nearly a year later, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge ruled that Sherley and Deisher should be granted standing, as Obama’s order put their livelihoods as adult stem cell researchers at risk.

Never mind that Deisher had never applied for an NIH grant. Sherley had; Deisher insisted that she intended to. The case went back to the original U.S. District Court in DC, where Chief Judge Royce Lamberth stunned the scientific establishment with an injunction favoring Sherley and Deisher. In a stroke, Lamberth undid Obama’s order and brought all federally funded human embryonic stem cell research to a screeching halt.

{page break}

THAT DAY LAST SUMMER, August 23, everyone at the NIH working with human embryonic stem cells pulled the plug on their experiments. The Stanford Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine set up a hasty new bureaucracy to ensure no federal funds slipped through. At the University of Washington—as in health sciences research labs across the land—human embryonic stem cell projects that already had federal funding could be completed, but anything up for renewal was doomed.

Murry, who codirects the UW’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, felt gut-punched. Eighty percent of his funding is tied to human embryonic research; his lab employs 24 people. He figured he’d have to shutter his entire operation.

Toughest was the uncertainty, as nobody knew how long the stoppage would last. In fact it lasted 17 days, until the appeals court issued a stay. But bigger-picture consequences weren’t so handily reversed. Promising scientific minds who might have pursued embryonic stem cell research had now seen the specter of yanked funding.

Ironically the years leading up to Deisher’s lawsuit had seen an unprecedented embrace of the promise of adult stem cells. This was due in part to the Bush-era antiembryonic policies, which pushed many scientists into adult stem cell research. But it cast Deisher to the forefront of an emerging frontier of conventional wisdom: that adult cells held much more promise than was previously understood.

Just how promising remains a point of fierce contention. Still, some adult stem cell advances are hailed by both sides. The one Murry calls "the single coolest recent finding in stem cell science" was the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, in 2007. Scientists discovered that joining four genes to an ordinary human adult skin cell generates the pluripotency that allows it to become any cell in the body—just like embryonic cells do. (Deisher—who bases her stance against embryonic, after all, on her belief that pluripotency is not therapeutically useful—waxes unimpressed about iPSCs.)

Even advocates began to dial back their initial delirium for human embryonic stem cell research. Art Caplan—who as director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania is considered the dean of U.S. liberal bioethicists—says human embryonic stem cell research was overhyped out of the gate, in response to the politics. As he told an interviewer for Public Discourse, "This notion that people would be out of their wheelchairs within a year if we could just get embryonic stem cell research funded was just ludicrous."

You can almost hear Tracy Deisher’s duh. Indeed, the pro-life objections, the emergence of iPSC cells, the challenges of embryonic treatments all provoke the question: Do we even need embryonic stem cells?

"The unequivocal answer is—absolutely," replies Tony Blau, codirector with Murry of the UW’s regenerative medicine institute. Excepting Deisher, every scientist interviewed for this story was unambiguous on this point: The very real potential of adult stem cells is no substitute for the as-yet-unimagined potential of embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells provide the foundation for understanding the key process of pluripotency. They provide the information on how adult stem cells can be manipulated and shorten the time to discovery.

And yes they create tumors, Murry notes with exasperation—it’s a defining feature of human embryonic stem cell transplants, and scientists know how to control for it. As for the potential of Deisher’s adult stem cell treatments overseas, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine warns against this kind of "stem cell tourism," saying those countries’ uncertain safety testing make the clinics "a source of concern for reputable stem cell scientists."

THE FIRST APPEAL OF THE Sherley/Deisher ruling came down in April against them—allowing federal funding of embryonic research to continue pending appeal. Now it’s back on the desk of Judge Lamberth. His ruling could come any day.

Whatever he decides, the loser will appeal—likely to the U.S. Supreme Court. If Deisher and Sherley prevail there, federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research will again be blocked—ostensibly for good. The research could go on—it just could no longer be financed by the NIH, its $30 billion funder.

If the high court declines to hear the case, the issue will likely get hashed out in Congress—and thus in the halls of public opinion. Such a debate would take place amid a public climate moderately friendly to embryonic stem cell research—recent stats show approval at anywhere from 52 to 57 percent—but increasingly hostile to abortion rights.

But if federally funded embryonic stem cell research is allowed to continue, we will undoubtedly see more news like that which emerged from Geron last October. The California biopharmaceutical company announced its sponsorship of the first injection of human embryonic stem cells into a man, Timothy Atchison, a 21-year-old Alabama nursing student paralyzed from the chest down in a car crash. The hope is that those cells might restore Atchison’s damaged spinal cord, as has happened with hundreds of test animals.

Asked about the Geron trial, Deisher sighed and answered as perhaps an embryonic stem cell research foe would answer: that most recently paralyzed patients improve spontaneously, so no one will ever know if the embryonic cells brought benefit or not.

Then the astute truth seeker let fly with a flurry of mumbled calculations about tumor formation and injection purity. It’s a small-scale operation, Deisher concluded, with possibly sufficient controls. It might work. Those tumors might not form. The guy might move again.

At this her interviewer looked surprised: The scientist suing the federal government out of her conviction that embryonic stem cells are dangerous is conceding that they might…heal? At this a person could be forgiven for concluding that what really drives Dr. Deisher’s crusade isn’t science at all.

But Deisher counters with a scientific explanation. "It’s when you scale up the treatments that purity goes down," she warned, suddenly dire as an Old Testament prophet. "Then there’s danger!"

Filed under
Show Comments