MILWAUKEE – If you’re a casual follower of the news about biotech research in Wisconsin, you might be convinced by now that virtually every researcher wearing a white coat is somehow engaged in coaxing embryonic stem cells to perform miracles.
Not so. While Wisconsin is a national leader in stem cell research, thanks to breakthroughs at the UW-Madison beginning in the mid-1990s, that type of biomedical research represents only a fraction of what’s happening in state universities and research labs. The rest of the state’s biotech portfolio may not be as controversial or as politically charged, but it’s vital to the Wisconsin economy – and the health of people everywhere.
That point was overlooked last week when Gov. Jim Doyle announced he will seek $2.5 million in financing for the Biomedical Technology Alliance, a consortium five academic institutions in the Milwaukee area. The consortium, formed about two years ago, aims to collaborate on research projects that might attract federal and private research grants, generate patents and generally propel the region’s tech-based economy.
Doyle’s announcement came with a warning: The Legislature should not condition release of the $2.5 million on stem cell research restrictions.
“I’m posing a direct challenge to the Legislature to stop playing stem-cell politics and invest in the tremendous opportunities we have here in southeastern Wisconsin,” Doyle said during a news conference at UW-Milwaukee.
His admonition makes some sense, given that a different funding request for the Biomedical Technology Alliance was stalled by an anti-stem cell amendment earlier this year. Predictably, that’s what wound up in the headlines. But here’s the rub: There is no human embryonic stem cell research being conducted by the consortium’s five institutions at this time.
The Medical College of Wisconsin has done some work with adult stem cells, but that type of research is supported by the same people who believe human embryonic stem cell research is unethical. So far, neither MCW nor the other Biomedical Technology Alliance institutions have announced any plans to conduct embryonic stem cell research. The center for that research is UW-Madison and related private institutions, such as the WiCell Institute.
Election-year politics explain why Doyle felt it necessary to once again draw his line in the sand regarding embryonic stem cell research. Fair enough. But let’s not forget the real reason why the Biomedical Technology Alliance deserves state support.
Collectively, the five schools in the consortium attracted about $181 million in research funding during the 2004 fiscal year. While that’s less than a quarter of UW-Madison’s research grants during the same period ($763.9 million, according to the National Science Foundation) it’s still a respectable research base.
In fact, if the $181 million in Milwaukee-based research was clustered in one institution, it would be the equal of Dartmouth University and nearly as large as Princeton University’s research spending.
Of course, it’s not clustered in one institution – and that’s the point of the Biomedical Technology Alliance. Its goal is to encourage more research that crosses over disciplinary lines, and which involves more than one institution in the Milwaukee area. Leveraging the power of all five institutions can make the research sum greater than the whole of the parts.
Among the strengths in the Milwaukee-area research base are proteomics, bioinformatics, biopreparedness, bioengineering, neuroscience, aquatic biology, detection technologies, medical imaging, physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology. There’s more than enough work to do, even if there’s never a single experiment involving human embryonic stem cells.
State politicians shouldn’t dwell on the potential for stem cell research in Milwaukee’s academic research centers. They should instead focus on making sure those centers work together to maximize their existing strengths. That’s why the $2.5 million for the Biomedical Technology Alliance should be approved.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.