By Tom Still

MADISON – One of the speakers at last month’s World Stem Cell Summit in Madison wasn’t a scientist, a patient advocate or a university administrator. She was an investor – an encouraging sign that human embryonic stem-cell research has entered a new and transformative phase.

Linda Powers of Toucan Capital, a Maryland-based investment firm, is like other venture capitalists in at least one major way – she invests to make money. But Powers is different from most other venture capitalists in at least one respect – she thinks she can make money by investing in stem cell companies.

In fact, Toucan Capital has invested in 16 companies that hold promise to produce diagnostic tools, therapies and other products from stem cells, an investment portfolio that seemed unimaginable only a few years ago.  After UW-Madison researcher James Thomson first isolated human embryonic stem cells in an unchanging form in 1998, investors sat on the sidelines for years. That’s not because they weren’t excited about the basic science, but because they couldn’t see a clear payback on their investments within a reasonable amount of time.

Today, more investors are cautiously betting that stem cells will redefine 21st century medicine. The rise of private investment is one of the tell-tale signs that this young research industry is coming of age. Here are related trends:

·       Restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research are being bypassed by states and private foundations. California voters approved a multi-billion-dollar plan to finance stem-cell research, and that money is now beginning to reach researchers in game-changing amounts. In Maryland, to cite another state example, Powers is leading a state commission to oversee distribution of $15 million to state stem-cell companies. Private dollars are being committed around the country, as well, by groups that realize science won’t stand in place simply because Washington orders it so.

·       Others nations have surged ahead with stem-cell research. High-level work is taking place in the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Israel and Sweden, to cite a few emerging stem-cell centers. As the body of international work grows, so will the chances of breakthroughs that will advance medicine and attract private investors.

·       No matter who wins the Nov. 4 election, current federal funding restrictions may be repealed. The Republican Party’s national platform remains strongly opposed to human embryonic stem-cell research, but the party’s presidential nominee appears open to change. While noncommittal of late, U.S. Sen. John McCain voted in 2007 to lift President Bush’s 2001 restrictions. Democrat Barack Obama has consistently voiced his support for research. Perhaps Obama was reassured by the 2006 re-election experience of Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who passionately defended stem-cell research during his race against Republican Mark Green. “For me, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Doyle said during the World Stem Cell Summit, “that you can actually build a significant portion of your state’s economy around relieving human suffering and saving lives.”

·       Advancements in science are changing the ethical debate. Wisconsin was the birthplace of human embryonic stem-cell research 10 years ago, but a breakthrough by Wisconsin and Japanese researchers a year ago may be just as important. Those researchers successfully reprogrammed adult skin cells to revert to embryonic cells. No one is willing to give up “traditional” human embryonic stem-cell research just yet, because science works best when multiple pathways are followed to check and double-check results. But if the reprogrammed cells prove themselves over the next year or so, the fight over destroying human embryos to derive stem cells may melt away.

Scarcely a week passes without another scientific review on the latest advancement in stem-cell research. There are no human embryonic stem-cell therapies or cures, yet, but in a nation where the average drug takes 12 to 15 years to reach the marketplace, that’s not surprising. As the number of researchers, companies and investors grow, however, the clock for human embryonic stem-cell research ticks faster by the day.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.