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Plaintiffs in stem cell lawsuit made news for other issues

James Sherley once staged a hunger strike to protest a denial of tenure, which he blamed on racism. Theresa Deisher claimed harassment by former colleagues amid an SEC inquiry.

August 24, 2010|By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times

Dr. James L. Sherley and Theresa Deisher, the plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit that threatens to end federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells, are perhaps better known for their extracurricular activities than for their scientific feats.

Sherley, an African American, is a former MIT researcher who claimed racism when he was denied tenure, then garnered headlines when he went on a 12-day hunger strike in 2007 to protest the decision. Now employed by the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Watertown, Mass., he writes frequent letters to Boston newspapers protesting articles or commentary he views as pro- abortion.

Deisher, founder of AVM Biotechnology in Seattle, is a frequent speaker warning against the use of embryonic cells to produce vaccines and other medical products. The company name — AVM, as in "Ave Maria" — reflects the struggling firm's efforts to provide products that don't rely on embryonic or fetal cells for their production.

Neither plaintiff is talking to the media, according to Steven H. Aden, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents them in the suit.

In declarations they submitted with the lawsuit, the two claimed that awarding federal funds for research on embryonic stem cells necessarily restricted the amount of funds available for their research on so-called induced pluripotent stem cells — that is, adult cells that can be rewound to an almost embryonic state.

Sherley, the son of a Baptist minister, received Ph.D. and M.D. degrees from Johns Hopkins University in 1988, then did postdoctoral studies at Princeton University. He was on the staff of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia for seven years before joining MIT in 1998.

He was vocal in his opposition to abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells and frequently got into loud discussions with colleagues, including a shouting match in a school cafeteria, according to newspaper reports.

In 2006, he was one of 13 young scientists who received the National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award, which included a $2.5-million grant to be disbursed over five years. The award supports research that is considered "cutting edge and risky."

In a 2009 letter to the Boston Globe, Sherley characterized abortion as "a social disease whose eradication requires a more enlightened society."

Deisher received her doctorate in molecular and cellular physiology from Stanford University 17 years ago, then took a series of positions at Repligen Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., ZymoGenetics Inc. in Seattle and Immunex Corp., also in Seattle. When Immunex was purchased by Amgen, she became principal scientist at the company, according to her AVM biography. She was vice president of research and development for CellCyte Genetics Corp. in Seattle before leaving in 2007 to found AVM. Her biography says she has 23 patents.

In 2008, she reported to Seattle police that she was being harassed by former colleagues at CellCyte who blamed her for releasing information that the company was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission on allegations of overzealous promotion of stock, followed by dumping. The company's stock fell precipitously.

In earlier interviews, Deisher said that she was a "radical feminist" during her college years, but later reverted to her Catholic faith. She opposed the use of embryonic stem cells not only because they required destruction of an embryo, but because she did not think they worked.

In an interview this month, she told the National Catholic Register: "I predict that in these early human trials we will probably see a short-term benefit, but it will be followed by devastation and disaster."

She added that in animal models, "in the short term, the functional benefits from embryonic stem cell treatments are very dramatic and exciting. And then those animals form tumors, or they reject the cells and the benefits are lost."

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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