Theresa Deisher, the Seattle researcher at the center of a legal battle to stop President Obama’s expansion of human embryonic stem-cell research, used to think all the human embryonic tissue the biotech industry was using came from miscarriages.
Until one day a colleague demanded, “How can you be so gullible?”
“It wasn’t out in the open then like it is now,” says Deisher, whose participation in a lawsuit by Advocates International and the Christian Medical Association was crucial in securing an injunction temporarily halting federal funding for new human embryonic stem-cell research last month.
Deisher and Boston researcher James Sherley are the plaintiffs in a suit against the federal government, which they accuse of funding research that would lead to the killing of human embryos, in violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Congress attaches the amendment each year to the National Institutes of Health appropriations bill. It prohibits any research grants that would cause abortions.
Once she pursued the miscarriage explanation, she realized that to be useful in research the embryonic tissue would have to be recovered and preserved within a few minutes of the unborn baby’s death, while most miscarriages are not discovered until days after the event.
A Catholic who had recently returned to her childhood faith after considerable soul-searching, Deisher now began a second journey of discovery that would lead her to start her own biotech firm dedicated to research and treatments conforming to Catholic moral teaching.
Deisher started AVM (short for Ave Maria) Biotechnology in 2008 after racking up 23 patents from 17 years of work with a string of the country’s leading biotech firms, including Genentech, Repligen, ZymoGenetics, Amgen and Immunex.
But it was after her term as vice president for research and development for the relatively new and small Seattle-based CellCyte was cut short in 2007 that she considered starting her own firm.
She left CellCyte after the firm made claims for its research into a heart treatment based on adult stem cells which were accused of being unwarranted. Subsequently, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the firm and reached an agreement with the CEO whereby the latter agreed, without admitting wrongdoing, to hold no executive positions with publicly traded companies for five years and pay a $50,000 fine.
‘Start a Pro-Life Company’
Meanwhile, Deisher was pondering her future and praying daily in a chapel about it. One day, she recalled, “I heard a voice within me saying, Start a pro-life company.”
Deisher was raised Catholic but, for reasons she can’t explain, on life issues she found her two aunts more convincing. “They were both very active in Planned Parenthood, and they kept telling me the fetus was not a human being, it was just a thing, and they even said it looked like a space alien.”
Encouraged to be a medical doctor, Deisher saw her first fetus while working in a Seattle hospital after graduating from high school. It was the product of a recent abortion, preserved in a jar. “To my eyes then, it was not a baby; it was a disgusting space alien like they said,” she recalled. “I thought the Church had lied.”
At college, Deisher switched her career track to science, though always with a view to finding medical treatments. But her humanitarian motive was without God. “God was dead,” she says. “Science was my god.”
If seeing a fetus preserved in formalin helped Deisher leave the faith, seeing an adult male body preserved in formalin speeded her on the path back. This happened in graduate school at Stanford University, and even though the body looked bizarre as it floated in preservative, Deisher had a revelation: “I had thrown out my faith by mistake. The truth was that this was a human and what I had seen in the jar years before was a baby.”
She began trying different denominations, settling on the Episcopalian church for the quality of its music and liturgy. But after she moved to a research job in Boston, she found Episcopalians standoffish. When her parents visited and she accompanied them to the Catholic cathedral, “a nun came up to us within three minutes and made us feel very welcome.”
This seemingly insignificant kindness started her on the path back to the Church.
“It was parenthood that really solidified my faith,” says Deisher. “I had always thought I was smarter than the Pope — for example, on his instructions to Africans not to use condoms. But as a parent I understood where he was coming from. He wants us to be the best we can be, just like any mother who loves her children.”
The Church’s high moral standards are not hard-hearted, she realized, but rooted in compassion: “The Pope is speaking to the world as a father.”
Faith and Science
Deisher is opposed to ANT-OAR (Altered Nuclear Transfer-Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming) on moral grounds. This, she says, is a well-intentioned effort by researchers seeking a moral alternative to embryonic stem cells. But she sees three problems with it: First, it starts with harvesting unfertilized eggs from women whose fertility has been boosted with extra hormones. Second, to her, ANT-OAR involves both the unnatural use of eggs and the “exploitation of women” by treating them as egg factories.
What is more, the ultimate product would mimic embryonic stem cells, meaning they would have the same tendency to create tumors in the people they are supposed to cure.
Deisher says the Church’s opposition to embryonic stem cells is not part of a fight between faith and science.
“Science is on the Church’s side,” she said. Embryonic stem cells have never been used in a viable treatment, despite research on animals going back to the late 1970s. On the other hand, research on adult stem cells began a decade later and has already led to many viable treatments.
Nonetheless, she says, human embryonic stem-cell research is more attractive commercially because the cells are patentable. A patent-owning drug company will be able to charge $50,000 to $500,000 per patient for individual treatments. “Adult stem-cell treatments are much more affordable, around $10,000, and without side effects.”
But without the same potential for patenting, adult stem-cell research is starved for funding. That is why Deisher agreed to support the emergency injunction to stop Obama’s expansion of human embryonic stem-cell research. It diverts federal funding from scientifically promising adult stem-cell research to risky human embryonic stem-cell research studies, she says. (As well, the federal judge who granted the injunction ruled that federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research violates federal law.)
The lack of funding has slowed AVM Biotech’s work, admits Deisher. “I want to help the parents and grandparents who call me looking for an ethical treatment for their children right now. I just have to step back and accept that God does not have the same deadlines as me.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.