By Tom Still

MADISON – As more states line up to promote human embryonic stem cell research, policymakers and investors will ask, “Will it pay off for all?” The most likely answer is no. But among those states poised to compete with California’s $3 billion initiative, Wisconsin may be the best positioned for success.

That’s because the $750 million proposal advanced by Gov. Jim Doyle is not aimed at advancing stem cell research alone, but an interdisciplinary mix of sciences that may yield advances across a much broader spectrum.

While stem cell research is vital to scientific understanding of debilitating diseases, it will not be the only field to benefit from Doyle’s call to invest a mix of public and private dollars. In other states, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Illinois and Florida, spending and bonding proposals have stressed stem-cell research alone.

In Wisconsin, legislators will be asked to consider:

 $375 million to build an interdisciplinary research center on the UW-Madison campus. The center would be called the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and would encompass research on stem cells, biochemistry, nanotechnology and computer engineering.
 $134 million for an Interdisciplinary Research Complex near the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics dedicated to innovation and rapid transfer of medical science discoveries into clinical applications;
 $132 million for a research facility at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children’s Hospital that will focus on infectious disease control, cardiovascular illnesses, and bioengineering;
 $1.5 million annually to support a new Alzheimer’s research initiative; and
 Investments of $105 million over the next five years in research, education, and public health efforts at the UW Medical School and the Medical College of Wisconsin to make progress in areas such as regenerative medicine, stem cell research, molecular medicine, neuroscience, and cancer research.

In short, the Wisconsin proposal spreads the bet and builds upon the state’s longstanding research strengths. In other states, the rush to compete with California is apparently producing proposals that are more limited.

New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey has asked the Legislature to spend $500 million to fund stem-cell research; some lawmakers want to increase that to $1 million. In Connecticut, a $100 million plan is pending. Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a similar bonding plan. New York lawmakers want to authorize $1 billion in bonds over 10 years, and the state controller in Illinois has suggested an identical amount.

While stem-cell research can unlock treatments for diabetes, Parkinson’s and other diseases, it represents only a portion of all research in biotechnology. The Biotechnology Industry Organization estimates that 3 percent of its members are engaged in stem cell research; most BIO members conduct research that touches on a number of fields.

Stem-cell research is part of a much larger, and apparently resurgent, biotechnology industry. Investments by venture capitalists in biotechnology totaled $6.6 billion in 2004, up 11 percent over 2003 and the first increase in four years. The national accounting firm of Ernst & Young has predicted that biotech revenues will reach $51.4 billion in 2005, up nearly 20 percent from the year before.

Barron’s magazine has predicted larger profit margins in the biotech sector than in traditional pharmaceuticals, due mainly to Big Pharma’s struggles with safety concerns, patent expirations and slow R&D timelines.

Given those trends, Wisconsin is wise to hedge its bets and pursue research breakthroughs with stem cells as well as other disciplines. The field has already dramatically narrowed. Of the 50 states, it is clear that only a half-dozen can hope to compete with California, and Wisconsin is a greater among equals in that group because of its head start and diversified approach.

Stem cell research is an important part of Wisconsin’s research strategy, but that strategy includes other important disciplines, as well.

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