By Tom Still

MADISON – South Korea is a nation deeply imbued with Confucian values, such as the belief that human bodies are inherited from ancestors and should never be tampered with. So there was understandable culture clash in Seoul last week when South Korean researchers announced they had become the first to clone a mature, human embryo – and then collect from it master stem cells in a process that may someday let patients grow their own replacement tissues.

For every South Korean who raised questions about the breakthrough, there appeared to be another who was overcome with pride. South Korea is a nation that rose from the ashes of war 50 years ago to become a global manufacturing and technology leader – and its people relish being first.

“This proves that South Koreans are ahead of everyone else in the world in this field,” boasted Moon Shin-yong, who led the research team at Seoul National University. Hwang Yoon-young, the dean of Seoul’s Hanyang University Medical School, proclaimed that the young women who donated their eggs for research will have their “sacred names ナ inscribed in the monument for South Korean biotechnology.”

No one got quite that worked up in 1998 when Jamie Thomson, the soft-spoken professor at the UW-Madison, announced his laboratory team had become the first to isolate stem cells from human embryos and coax them to grow in five “immortal” cell lines. But it was that accomplishment, and the work of other scientists who followed, that laid the foundation for the South Korean discovery.

But is it true that stem cell researchers in Wisconsin and elsewhere must now take a back seat to those in South Korea? Has Wisconsin squandered its head start in stem cell research?

The answer is a qualified “no.” While Wisconsin faces stiff competition from around the world and from within the United States, its researchers have a comprehensive program that has operated successfully under tight scrutiny and ethical oversight. If other overreaching programs are tarred as rogues for moving too quickly or too brashly, the Wisconsin stem cell program will remain No. 1 on the quality list.

Stem cell research has raised hopes for treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease and more. At least 30 faculty at the UW-Madison conduct stem cell research stem cells and another 120 researchers and staff assist in the effort. Collectively, their projects earn about $15 million to $20 million a year in grants from federal sources, research foundations and private donors.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the private, non-profit patent and license arm of the UW-Madison, has created the WiCell Research Institute. This WARF subsidiary has another dozen stem cell researchers. The institute has distributed stem cells to 150 other research institutions and also conducts regular training sessions on how to work with them.

Because WARF holds key stem cell patents and controls technology transfer for UW-Madison, it can protect Wisconsin’s intellectual property – and issue commercial licenses to use the technology. Such spin-offs haven’t happened yet, but that someday will become another important “first” for Wisconsin.

That would be an important breakthrough for people everywhere. Once stem cell therapies are licensed, treatments cannot be far behind.

The South Korea challenge may not be the most significant to Wisconsin, however. In California, voters are being asked to approve a bond referendum that would spend $3 billion over 10 years on stem cell research. The University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute recently announced a drive to expand its work. Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among other states pursuing programs to ramp up their stem cell research.

Short of an academic “raid” that would pilfer top Madison researchers, or a short-sighted legislative initiative that would tie the hands of those researchers, Wisconsin remains in an esteemed position in the stem cell research community. And if researchers here are the first to discover a treatment or cure, that “first” will be the only one that truly counts.

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