By Tom Still
MADISON – You need not hold a Ph.D. in microbiology or a subscription to “Nature” to have heard of Dr. James Thomson. He’s the “father” of human embryonic stem cell research, internationally acclaimed for his work and arguably Wisconsin’s most famous living scientist.
But have you heard of Clive Svendsen, Timothy Kamp, Ian Duncan, Jon Odorico, Gabriella Cezar or Alta Charo?
Unless you play the stem-cell equivalent of fantasy baseball, you probably aren’t familiar with these homegrown stars. After next month’s World Stem Cell Summit in Madison, however, it will become more apparent than ever that Wisconsin’s leadership in this emerging field is supported by what sports writers would call a deep bench.
The World Stem Cell Summit, to be held Sept. 22-23 at Madison’s Alliant Center with a free opening event Sept. 21 at UW-Madison’s Pyle Center, is a gathering of scientists, company leaders, ethicists, investors and more from virtually everywhere stem-cell research is underway. These days, that’s a growing geographic list.
In addition to the United States, where the UW-Madison’s 120-plus researchers make Wisconsin a national leader, research is thriving in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Israel, China and beyond. It’s a highly competitive industry, with many of those nations investing hundreds of millions of dollars each year to push toward safer and more effective drugs, therapies and even cures.
The summit is being held in Madison, in part, because Thomson is a household name in the stem-cell community for being the first to isolate stem cells in an unchanging state. But it’s also coming to town because UW-Madison has assembled one of the strongest overall research teams in the world, with scientists specializing in fields as diverse as neurology, cardiology, toxicology, diabetes, oncology and more.
And standing behind those scientists are other Ph.D. and graduate level researchers, as well as basic research facilities that are already world-class and which soon will be augmented by the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.
Consider the work of the summit co-chairs, UW-Madison’s Svendsen and Kamp. Svendsen is a professor of anatomy whose work has centered on sneaking drugs past the so-called “brain-blood barrier” by engineering and implanting progenitor (ancestor) brain cells derived from stem cells. If his work is successful, it will someday help clinicians deliver drugs where they are needed most in the body. The brain’s complex barriers effectively exclude more than 70 percent of all drugs, including medicines for some neurodegenerative diseases that could respond to treatment if the barrier is breached.
Kamp is a professor of medicine and physiology whose work has focused on stem cells and heart disease. Human embryonic stem cells can evolve into cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) which may even form spontaneously contracting bodies of cells. If the work of Kamp and others progresses, cardiomyocytes derived from stem cells will provide valuable cell culture “models” for testing new drugs and, perhaps, become a source for cell transplant therapies.
The list goes on: Duncan’s research concerns the use of stem cells in treating diseases of the central nervous system, including multiple sclerosis and childhood genetic disorders. Odorico works with islet endocrine cells, which offer current and future treatments for diabetes. Cezar is focused on using stem cells to advance research on birth defects and cancer. Charo is an ethicist, serving on the faculty of the UW-Madison Law School and Medical School, as well as national boards that have helped define the boundaries of stem-cell research.
The World Stem Cell Summit will provide a look at some of the latest research from around the world, examine how governments and companies are financing that research and pushing it to the next stage, and offer important chances to discuss the ethical implications of the research. The fact that it’s happening in Wisconsin is testimony to the fact that Thomson’s 1998 breakthrough was no fluke. This is a state that continues to innovate and invest in a field that will change the face of medicine – and it has the deep bench to pull it off.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He will moderate a Sept. 22 panel discussion at the World Stem Cell Summit. Visit www.worldstemcellsummit.com to learn more.