Alta Charo, JD
May 7, 2018
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Current residence: Madison, WI
Graduate degree: JD
Current position: Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law, University of Wisconsin
What led you to become an advocate for stem cell research?
My early work as a lawyer on the bioethics of reproductive technologies led to participation on the mid-1990s NIH Human Embryo Research Panel. The policy expertise gained there proved useful on campus, at the University of Wisconsin, when Jamie Thomson first began his work with human ES cells. This in turn informed my participation on President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission. Other work, on drug development policy, gave me the regulatory background needed to help with efforts in the early 2000s to fend off congressional efforts to criminalize cloning research and defund embryonic stem cell research. When I joined President Obama’s transition team, it was in part to help work on developing a stem cell policy for the new administration. But through all of this, from my earliest work to the day in the White House when President Obama signed an executive order that lifted the ban on NIH-funded stem cell research and revitalized the field, the most powerful impetus for my efforts was the seven-year experience of watching one of my oldest and dearest friends slowly die from ALS. This research didn’t come along in time for her, but I was and still am intent on changing that for people in the future.
What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
While I continue to write on topics related to reproductive rights, I have recently found myself participating in a variety of projects related to genetics and biotechnology, including novel foods and bioterrorism. But my intention is to work for constitutional protection of biological research that is viewed by some as blasphemous because of its capacity to revise, remake or even create new life forms.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
The best part of my work is the chance to spend my time with brilliant scientists and passionate advocates. It is a glorious privilege to love one’s work and know it is part of a larger effort to heal the world.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
Harriet Rabb was the general counsel at the US Department of Health and Human Services under Secretary Donna Shalala, and it was she who carefully, quietly, and expertly thread the needle to allow for funding of work on cell lines despite the Dickey-Wicker restrictions on funding for work on embryos themselves. Her work was so detailed and sophisticated that Congress backed off nascent efforts to challenge her opinion, and federal courts subsequently shut down efforts by research opponents to stop the funding. My admiration for her knows no bounds.
How do you spend your free time?
I am an inveterate home renovation queen, and when I run out of things to do in my own home, I try to convince my friends to let me spend their money by redesigning their homes too.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
That I have pretty much memorized the Star Trek canon (all series) and the complete works of Jane Austen. I hold them in equal regard and affection.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
Being part of ISSCR is being part of a better future.