Ten years ago, Bernard Siegel was just another South Florida lawyer handling child custody cases.
Then he filed a petition in Broward County Circuit Court to appoint a temporary guardian for "Baby Eve," a landmark 2002 case that exposed the claims of "human cloning" to be a sham. Siegel walked away believing such claims were overshadowing important work.
"I realized the damage to science that was taking place," he said..
Today, the 63-year-old is one of the world's leading champions for stem-cell research and the man behind the World Stem Cell Summit this week in West Palm Beach .
Scientists as from as far away as Japan, some from Nobel Prize-winning institutes, will be meeting through Wednesday at the Palm Beach Convention Center, the first time the summit is being held in Florida.
"Stem cell research has enormous societal benefit to alleviate human suffering," said Siegel, pointing to the research leading to drug discovery and potential cures.
Russell Allen, executive director of BioFlorida, the statewide industry group, said he is aware of Siegel's unusual beginnings in the industry, but "he has an international reputation as a bioscience advocate, not just in the stem cell world."
Siegel's unexpected journey from the courtroom to stem-cell research advocate began after he watched a televised news conference held at a Hollywood hotel in 2002.
Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, scientific director of the self-proclaimed human cloning company, Clonaid, went before a microphone to announce, "the first baby clone is born." Siegel said Clonaid is an offshoot of the Raelian religious sect who believed humankind was created by extraterrestrials through cloning.
Clonaid witnesses called to testify in the case never produced Eve, supposedly the clone of a 31-year-old American woman.
The Eve case came six years after Dolly, the cloned sheep, which generated excitement but also fear about cloning.
Siegel caught the attention of scientists who were fighting restrictions on stem-cell research. They asked him to be their public voice and make the case for responsible reasearch. Siegel, a graduate of the University of Miami and UM Law School, embraced the spotlight. He conducted a whirlwind of interviews including a on-air debate with the founder of Clonaid, Claude Vorilhon aka "Rael" on Connie Chung Tonight on CNN.
He also has spoken before many world leaders, including the United Nations and organizations like the World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research in Rome.
Siegel's interest in medical research grew in part from his own experience surviving colon cancer 15 years ago. While stem-cell therapy wasn't a factor in his remission, "we have a better understanding of the roots of cancer" through research, he said.
Claudia Zylberberg, of Akron Biotech, a Boca Raton manufacturer of products for stem-cell research, said Siegel has been effective as a "matchmaker," helping entrepreneurs meet others doing similar research.
"Even though he's not a scientist, he's very much educated and trying to bring the best to the world of stem-cell research," she said.
And he hasn't shied from controversy, Zylberberg said, expressing strong support of embryonic stem cell research over the years.
Embryonic stem cell research is often objected to on ethical and moral grounds for destruction of embryos. "Right to Life" advocates have criticized President Barack Obama's decision to reverse policies of the administration of George W. Bush that limited federal funding for stem cell research.
But Siegel said he is hopeful that with Obama's re-election, there will be more federal funding for the research some scientists say could lead to significant advances or even cures for multiple sclerosis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, blindness, AIDS, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, birth defects and more.
"The gold standard is still embryonic research. The fact is we need all the tools in the toolkit," he said.
The controversy has become less of stumbling block to research as there have been advances in stem-cell use from umbilical cord blood and bone marrow.
In 2005, Siegel joined with then Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson to push for a ballot initiative that would provide funding to stem-cell research in Florida. The ballot initiative never came to a public vote, but Siegel said it helped put Florida on the map in attracting cutting-edge research.
Aaronson said he remains a strong supporter of embryonic stem cell research and of Siegel's advocacy.
"I'm happy we're having the conference here," he said. "What's more important than curing people?"
World Stem Cell Summit on the web:
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