By Tom Still

MADISON – Scientists and others close to Wisconsin’s research sector often use the term “public-private partnership” to describe a Nirvana of converging interests: the power of a public research university paired with the flexibility and rapid response of private collaborators.

But what does such a partnership actually look like? Last week’s announcement that a team of researchers from the UW-Madison have produced clinical-quality human stem cells from skin cells offers a world-class example.

A team led by UW-Madison’s Dr. James Thomson, a pioneer of stem cell research that could lead to new drugs, diagnostics and cures, has found a way to coax skin cells back into their earliest stage. So has another team working in Japan and California. The breakthroughs are internationally significant because they sidestep the need to create stem cells by destroying donated human embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics.

Thomson, who first isolated human stem cells in an “immortal” state nearly 10 years ago, is the headliner – and rightly so. But the team built around him at UW-Madison, at the non-profit WiCell Research Institute and in emerging private companies is a big part of the story. It epitomizes the term “public-private partnership.”

A major contributor to Thomson’s success was the assistance of WiCell, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and its relationship with NimbleGen Systems Inc., a Madison genomic technology company recently acquired by the Roche pharmaceutical firm.

NimbleGen has operated a laboratory and production facility in Reykjavik, Iceland, for about five years. Why set up a lab on a chilly island in the North Atlantic? Iceland is a hub of research related to the human genome, in large part because of its massive population genetics study.

That lab and WiCell’s bioinformatics team worked with Thomson to understand the genetics of the human embryonic stem cell. Their peer-reviewed paper shows that five of the authors are WiCell scientists, including the director of the Iceland lab.  While WiCell is a non-profit organization, its ability to be creative, to take advantage of new opportunities and to develop close relationships with WARF’s commercial partners such as NimbleGen allows a public university such as UW-Madison to be competitive globally.

Carl Gulbrandsen, WARF’s managing director, said the stem-cell partnership reflects what the university hopes to establish through the $150-million Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery project. That center will have a public and private side when opened in 2009, with the private side called the Morgridge Institute for Research after major donors John and Tashia Morgridge.

“The presence of a successful, non-profit private research institute allows the university to gain the flexibility and speed of the private side,” Gulbrandsen said. “Similarly, the private, non-profit research institute is able to leverage the huge capital infrastructure and human capital of the university… The net result will be to keep UW-Madison globally competitive and make a great public university even greater.”

The stem-cell breakthrough demonstrates the strategy being followed by UW-Madison and WARF, a non-profit group that patents and licenses university discoveries, is likely to work. But it will require private collaborators, such as the scientists at NimbleGen Systems, who can take those discoveries to the next level.

Fortunately, Wisconsin has the private-sector biotechnology expertise to propel such work. With stronger public-private partnerships, that biotech sector will continue to grow – and add value to the state’s economy.

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