Stem-cell research: “It’s where most of my hope lies”

Published: July 3, 2004
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It’s been nearly two years since David Busta held a book in his hands, combed his hair, pedaled a bike or took a step from his bed or wheelchair.

The 29-year-old UW-Madison graduate is limited by the injuries he sustained in a freak 30-foot fall outside the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee. Likely paralyzed for life, Busta looks ahead in part by focusing back on his alma mater, where he believes scientists can solve the puzzle of reanimating his arms and legs through the promise of human embryonic stem-cell research.

“It’s where most of my hope lies,” Busta said in a telephone interview from the rehab facility in New Hope, Minn., where he lives. “So much of the person that I am developed from my time at UW-Madison, and I would be so proud to go back there and have them improve my life again.”

But it’s a tall order.

Stem cells may be helpful in the treatment and cure of many diseases because they are the body’s building blocks, “parent” cells capable of becoming every tissue in the body. They are plucked by researchers from days-old fertilized eggs, known as embryos, which at that stage consist of little more than a tiny mass of cells poised to multiply and specialize into all 220 types of cells that make up the human body.

By stopping the stem cell’s evolution at that critical point – a goal that UW-Madison was the first to achieve in 1998 – scientists hope to learn more about the crucial “witching hour” of cell development, that magic moment when the mysterious process of specialization begins. If they can figure out how to guide the process, they can begin to cure diseases afflicting millions of Americans: for instance, calling up a pancreatic cell if diabetes is a patient’s problem or telling the stem cell to make brain cells known as neurons to repair a spinal cord injury like Busta’s.

They aren’t there yet. Scientists have turned stem cells into blood cells and early-stage neurons, but clinical trials on people using replacement cells are years away.

“It is still very early,” said Su-Chun Zhang, a UW-Madison professor who grew the neurons. “We hardly know anything about human cells.”

David and his parents, Carol and Dave Busta of Chetek, near Eau Claire, face other challenges, too.

Most formidably, the U.S. government under President Bush has restricted stem-cell research paid for with federal money. Bush in 2001 for the first time provided federal money to stem-cell research, but he limited the grants to the roughly 70 stem-cell lines, or cell colonies, then created by scientists.

Most researchers now agree new lines are needed, after growing problems with the quality and availability of many of the original 70.

“We think the restrictions are holding the research back,” said Andy Cohn, director of UW-Madison’s WiCell Institute, which controls five of the original stem-cell lines. They were created by university scientists using private donations.

UW-Madison now gets a mix of private money that can be used without restrictions and federal money that has restrictions. But scientists here still support lifting the restrictions, for the good of all researchers.

“We’re one of the institutions that has the luxury of (using) private money,” Cohn said. “Most don’t have that luxury. For this research to go forward, this has to happen all over the country.”

Proponents also must overcome the political and moral ambiguities surrounding the science. It is controversial because harvesting the stem cells requires destroying those early-stage human embryos, which opponents equate with a baby.

“You don’t sacrifice one human being to try to advance a cure for another,” said Peggy Hamill, director of Pro-Life Wisconsin.

Supporters disagree.

“I feel that because there is no implantation (of the embryo in a womb), there is no life,” Carol Busta said. “And so that shouldn’t even be an issue. We’re not making babies and we’re not killing babies, because there wasn’t even a baby to begin with.”

(At UW-Madison and most other places studying stem cells, the original embryos for making lines came from fertility-clinic clients who donated the surplus embryos that are produced during the procedure to increase the chances of a successful pregnancy. They typically would be discarded.)

A national showdown is looming in the November election, when Bush faces Democratic challenger John Kerry, who has promised to lift the federal restrictions. The recent death of President Reagan after years of living with Alzheimer’s – another currently incurable illness that stem-cell therapies could treat – also has drawn attention to the cause.

Meanwhile, a growing number of privately funded advances in other countries is pushing the debate, including the recent announcement that Cambridge University will open a $30 million stem-cell research facility in London. And the growing willingness of some states, including California and New Jersey, to put up their own money to fund the science without restrictions is raising the stakes locally.

“Wisconsin is recognized as the gold standard for stem-cell research,” said Mark Bugher, director of University Research Park. “We ought to stand up and celebrate our success here as a world-class university that has made this discovery.”

For David Busta, the stakes are more personal.

His life changed in a blink on Aug. 24, 2002, when he left a Santana concert at the amphitheater and somehow fell over a railing, fracturing his neck in three places and severing part of his spinal cord. He doesn’t remember how it happened.

His first memory afterward is being wheeled down the hallway of a hospital and having a nurse tell him he had serious injuries from a fall. Soon he heard he was paralyzed.

“I didn’t really believe it at first,” he said. “But as it sank in, I learned to accept it.”

The shock to his parents was only slightly less shattering. Now 53 and 55, Carol and Dave Busta had just let themselves start picturing a relaxed retirement when David’s accident occurred. An older daughter, Dawn, is married.

“We always said we were going to give our children an education and after that they were out of the house and on their own,” Carol said wistfully. “And here we are.”

Busta underwent surgery and five months of intensive treatment at Froedert Hospital in Milwaukee. Staff gradually weaned him off a respirator and feeding tube and fitted him with a wheelchair, first controlled by puffs of air from his mouth and now by movements of his head.

He uses voice-recognition equipment to run his stereo and computer, to operate the TV and answer the telephone in his room at the center. He may get his own apartment soon, with a live-in caretaker, and hopes to start doing part-time Internet research work.

Slow to anger and doggedly optimistic, Busta doesn’t sound bitter about his predicament – though he does acknowledge frustration with stem-cell research opponents.

“Just the potential good that the research can do so far outweighs any moral problem with it,” he said. “The pro-life people should also be concerned about doing what they can for the living.”

Busta said he of course wants to walk again, and be a husband and father some day, like so many of his friends. But short of that, he’d like to regain some movement in his arms to help him handle day-to-day tasks more independently.

“Just being able to feed myself, or being able to handle money so that I could go to the store and buy groceries (would help),” Busta said. “Sometimes little things are the worst, like having an itch on my nose that I can’t scratch, or sitting outside and having a bug land on my face and not being able to shoo it away.”

He does get a break at night, sometimes.

“When I have dreams, I’m still able-bodied, never disabled,” he said.

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Karen Rivedal Wisconsin State Journal
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