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If you like James Thomson's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Linda Buck,
Francis Collins,
Judah Folkman,
John Gearhart,
Susan Hockfield,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
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James Watson,
Ian Wilmut and
Shinya Yamanaka

Related Links:
Embryo Project
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James Thomson
James Thomson
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James Thomson Biography

Father of Stem Cell Research

James Thomson Date of birth: December 20, 1958

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  James Thomson

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James A. Thomson was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where his father worked as a certified public accountant, his mother in college administration. Although no members of his immediate family were scientists by training, the passion for science captured him at an early age. When he entered the University of Illinois, he planned to concentrate on math and physics, but he soon fell under the spell of a biology professor, Frederick Meins, whose studies of the plant virus crown gall prefigured Thomson's later work with human stem cells. Meins introduced Thomson to the fundamentals of mammalian embryology, and the aspiring physicist and mathematician became a budding molecular biologist.

After graduating from Illinois with a degree in biophysics, Thomson moved on to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue graduate studies in molecular biology. Thomson's scientific interests remained broad however, and the challenge of preserving endangered species also caught his attention. While studying molecular biology, he undertook simultaneous doctoral studies in veterinary medicine, earning doctorates in both disciplines. The veterinary training proved highly valuable in his subsequent experimental work with primates.

James Thomson Biography Photo
In the 1980s, researchers had isolated and cultured stem cells from the embryos of laboratory mice. These undifferentiated cells reproduce continuously until they develop into the specialized cells that make up the different tissues of the animal's body. Thomson was fascinated by stem cells, and their potential for understanding human health and disease, but mouse cells are vastly different from human cells. Determined to learn about the stem cells of our nearest animal relatives, he undertook post-doctoral research at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. Primate embryos for research were rare and expensive and Thomson sought a means to support himself while undertaking a long-term effort to isolate and culture embryonic primate stem cells.

He found an answer at the University of Wisconsin's Primate Center, which offered him a residency in pathology, as well as a post-doctoral fellowship to continue his effort to culture primate stem cells. The pathology residency freed him from the "publish or perish" tenure track of academic science, incompatible with the necessarily slow rate of his research in embryonic stem cells. Many biologists at the time believed that it was fundamentally impossible to derive these cells from primates as had been done with mice.

Thomson's work bore fruit in 1995, when he and his team succeeded in deriving embryonic stem cells from nonhuman primates. Thomson had overcome one seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and the goal of isolating human stem cells now seemed clearly possible, but a serious concern remained. The primate stem cells had been derived from embryos fertilized in vitro. Human stem cells, it appeared, would need to be derived from human embryos, which would be destroyed in the process. At the time, government policy prohibited the use of federal funds for experimentation with human embryos, which many Americans regard as potential human beings with a right to life.

James Thomson Biography Photo
After reviewing the matter with medical ethicists, Thomson concluded that the potential benefit to be gained from human stem cell research outweighed the objection to destroying embryos which would eventually be discarded in any event. He proceeded with private funding, and in 1998, he announced the derivation of stem cells from human embryos. Almost simultaneously, a team led by Dr. John Gearhart at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore obtained similar results, working from human fetal tissue.

Thomson's discovery was hailed as a monumental breakthrough. Enthusiastic press reports suggested that cures for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's could be just around the corner. Thomson knew better and insisted in every available forum that the study of human stem cells would demonstrate its first benefits through an improved understanding of the nature of human diseases, rather than through any miraculous new transplant technology. At the same time, the publicity given Thomson's discovery intensified the moral objection raised by many Americans to the experimental use of human embryos.

James Thomson Biography Photo
In 2001, President George W. Bush decided that federal funding would be made available for research employing the existing stem cell lines derived from the work of Thomson and others, but that there would be no further federal support for the study of any future stem cell lines derived from human embryos. At the time, human stem cell research was still in its infancy, and many researchers argued that the existing stem cell lines were inadequate for study purposes. Prominent supporters of the research, across the political spectrum, opposed what they saw as unnecessary political intrusion into vital medical research. In 2004 the State of California established its own research program to compensate for the loss of federal support. The ban on federal funding was lifted by order of President Barack Obama in 2009, but the following year a federal court order halted further funding.

Meanwhile, Thomson and others had turned their attention to a different goal, reverting adult cells to the undifferentiated state of embryonic stem cells. Stem cells are valued for their pluripotency, their ability to turn into any of the different cells of the body -- skin, bone, nerve, heart. If adult cells could be induced to return to the pluripotent state, the need for further research on human embryos might be reduced, if not eliminated.

In 2008, Dr. Thomson and his team at the University of Wisconsin, including post-doctoral fellow Junying Yu, announced that they had converted human skin cells into cells that very nearly resemble embryonic stem cells. As often happens at this level of research, another team achieved similar results almost simultaneously -- in this case, one led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, half a world away in Kyoto, Japan.

As Dr. Thomson had felt compelled to restrain the overoptimistic forecasts of the immediate therapeutic benefits of his earlier research, he once again urged patience in judging the ultimate significance of his latest discovery. In Thomson's view, the most promising prospect in the foreseeable future will be the ability to recreate and reproduce all the different cells of the body in the laboratory, the better to understand their function in health and in illness, and to test possible treatments on cultured cells in the laboratory without endangering human subjects.

James Thomson Biography Photo
James Thomson currently serves as Director of Regenerative Biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research in Madison, Wisconsin (founded in 1996 by John Morgridge), and is a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, as well as an adjunct professor in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also Chief Scientific Officer of Cellular Dynamics International, a company he founded that produces derivatives of human induced pluripotent stem cells for pharmaceutical research. His research frequently appears in the journals Cell, Nature and Science, which twice featured his discoveries as "Breakthrough of the Year." TIME magazine named him one of "America's Best in Science and Medicine" in 2001, as well as one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" in 2008. He maintains his principal home in Madison, Wisconsin.

This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 20:04 EDT
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