Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Crusader: Theresa Deisher once shunned religion for science. Now, with renewed faith, she is fighting human-embryonic-stem-cell research in court

Theresa Deisher was 17 years old the first time she saw a human fetus. Having graduated from the Holy Names Academy in Seattle, Washington, in 1980, she had taken
a summer job in the pathology lab at the city’s Swedish Hospital when a friend and co-worker miscarried in her fifth month of pregnancy. The fetus arrived fixed in
formalin, and Deisher helped to section it to determine the cause of the miscarriage. The body hardly seemed to be the remains of a sentient, soul-bearing human, as the faith of her upbringing had taught, recalls Deisher.

Instead, “It looked like a space alien,” she says. “I called it ‘the thing’ for so many years.”

Thirty years later, Deisher sees the unborn in a different light. She has reversed her views on embryos and become one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in 2009, seeking to stop the US government from funding human-embryonic-stem-cell research. The courts hearing the case could issue a decision at any time; many, including Deisher, expect that the matter will end up before the US Supreme Court.

Deisher’s co-plaintiff, James Sherley, an adult-stem-cell scientist at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Watertown, Massachusetts, is well known as a provocateur. In 2007, he went on a hunger strike to protest against a decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to deny him tenure, which he attributed to racism.

Deisher is less well known. A cellular physiologist educated at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, she spent 17 years in the biotech industry at companies including Genentech, Immunex and Amgen. Three years ago, she founded a tiny, privately held Seattle firm called AVM Biotechnology — the name is a loose abbreviation for ‘Ave Maria’ — which is dedicated to hastening adult-stem-cell therapies to the market, and to developing alternatives to vaccines and therapeutics made using cell lines from aborted fetuses. She has also launched a non-profit group, the Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute, which among other things is investigating, as she puts it, “the potential link between human DNA in childhood vaccines and autism”.

Deisher, who is 48 and goes by the name Tracy, is smart, driven and committed. A devout Catholic and a divorced mother of two boys aged 9 and 12, she rises as early as 3:45 a.m. to ride an exercise bike while praying the rosary. She is casual and unpretentious, with a dry humour and a can-do attitude: she spent New Year’s Eve laying carpet in the 180-square-metre office space that her company recently moved into. See the rest of this important profile published in Nature magazine here.

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