By Tom Still


MADISON – It was a lead story this week in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and about a thousand publications worldwide, but what does the latest breakthrough in human embryonic stem-cell research mean to Wisconsin?


Here are five reasons why Wisconsin’s research sector and the state’s economy stand to gain from the announcement that research teams based in Japan and Madison have produced clinical-quality stem cells from human skin cells, a process that sidesteps the need to create or destroy embryos.


  1. It drives home the point – often overlooked by East and West coast news media, and downplayed by some envious scientists – that Wisconsin is a pace-setter in human embryonic stem cell research. Dr. James Thomson, the UW-Madison developmental biologist who was first to isolate embryonic stem cells in an “immortal state,” was also the lead Wisconsin scientist in the latest breakthrough. He didn’t do it alone. There are roughly 120 researchers involved in stem-cell research on or around the UW-Madison campus, making it one of the largest and most talented clusters in the world. Others may talk about building stem-cell teams, but Wisconsin already owns a decade of expertise.
  2. There’s a familiar pathway for patenting the breakthrough and licensing commercial applications. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation already holds a half-dozen core stem cell patents and will move quickly to protect this research, as well. WARF knows how to bring scientific knowledge to the brink of marketability – and it has unique experience in filing (and defending) stem cell patents.
  3. It underscores the overall strength of Wisconsin’s biotechnology industry. Stem-cell research has received a disproportionate amount of public attention, in part because cells are initially derived from human embryos, but also because the technology has the potential to redefine medical science. But it’s not the only thing Wisconsin biotech researchers and companies do. In fact, stem cells are the research equivalent of a “loss leader” in the retail industry. Stem cell research helps get the world inside Wisconsin’s doors, but once inside, buyers discovers a wealth of other quality products. The major pharmaceutical companies know that Wisconsin could not have become a leader in stem-cell research without having other expertise on the shelves.
  4. It could bring more federal research dollars to the state. Wisconsin attracts more than $1 billion per year in what’s broadly defined as “sponsored” research, meaning either the federal government, private industry or both pay to have it done in the state’s major academic institutions. About two-thirds of the total is federally sponsored, and much of that is research in biotechnology and life sciences. Wisconsin already gets a fair share of the federal dollars spent on embryonic stem-cell research because it holds a half-dozen federally approved “lines” and is the headquarters for the National Stem Cell Bank. If the funding logjam is broken in Washington, Wisconsin is a logical place for increased federal investment in research using the new process. It’s also the best place to compare and contrast results with traditional embryonic research.
  5. Perhaps most important, the new technique could persuade private investors to get off the sidelines. Most venture capitalists have been hesitant to get behind embryonic stem cell companies for two reasons: the political climate was uncertain, and the companies are nascent and years from profitability. The new process, while still far from proven in a clinical sense, could change both dynamics. President Bush has gotten his wish that science might find a way to avoid using human embryos for such research (even if those embryos would have otherwise been destroyed) and will rush to get behind the new technique. Meanwhile, investors will be watching to see if the reprogrammed skin cells indeed perform like other “pluripotent” stem cells, meaning they can change into many different types of cells. “By any means we test them, they are the same as embryonic stem cells,” Thomson said. Potential investors hope he is right.


If the global market for stem-cell therapies, diagnostics and other products meets with predictions, it will top $10 billion by 2016. If Wisconsin can capture 10 percent of that market, not an unrealistic goal, that’s a $1 billion industry that would produce thousands of jobs. Very few states have the head start owned by Wisconsin; let’s try not to blow our lead.


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