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Competition for stem cell research is fierce

While Wisconsin’s position in stem-cell research is strong, there are pitfalls and competitors to reckon with if the state wishes to hold its leading position, according to UW-Madison stem cell researcher Prof. Gabriela Cezar.

Cezar, who recently joined UW to assist with its stem-cell work, spoke this week at a luncheon sponsored by the Wisconsin Innovation Network, a division of the Wisconsin Technology Council, about the current state of stem-cell technology and where the field can go in Wisconsin and worldwide.

“We really want to sustain the idea that there are opportunities in stem cell research that have unmet needs in business development,” Cezar said.

Noting that tests in animals have already proven the efficacy of many stem-cell applications, Cezar said it’s only a matter of time before similar research in humans is able to solve many problems of disease, disabilities and birth defects, as well as basic questions about human development.

While bullish on Wisconsin’s position in stem-cell research, noting its pioneering position in stem cells, Cezar said there is fiercely competitive environment in this area both around the U.S. as well as work being done abroad. California, for example, has strong sources of capital coming from the San Diego and San Francisco areas, as well as tens of millions of dollars of support from state government.
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“In California, they know their scientists by name,” Cezar said, emphasizing the importance of scientists, government and the private sector all working in tandem.

Additionally, other countries can be far more permissive. Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Act enables researchers to undertake embryonic stem-cell research with much fewer restrictions than here in the U.S.

It is possible to go too far, according to Cezar. Discussing a recent revelation that South Korean researchers used eggs donated by younger lab workers and paid donors, Cezar underscored the importance of working within ethical guidelines and avoiding conflicts of interest.

“That’s one example of a line you don’t cross.”

Ethical concerns were cited as one danger along the way. While embryonic cells are more scaleable and have greater plasticity than stem cells derived from adult sources, continuing opposition from moral objectors has slowed progress of the technology. Cezar again cited California as a positive example of how such roadblocks can be overcome. When lawsuits were filed to stop state aid granted by a voter initiative, private companies stepped in and provided much of the funding to researchers waiting on state money.

“If the money isn’t there, the idea is contagious,” Cezar said noting that other states in addition to California, such as Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey, are already busy making their own investments and attempting to bring the new field into their backyard.

Cezar’s previous experience includes work at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, DeForest-based Infigen, Pharmacia and Pfizer. She will now work at the UW-Madison Department of Animal Sciences on efforts to study the uses of stem cells and differentiated cells in clinical settings, such as bioassays for conducting experiments in drug discovery, or a more detailed understanding of organogenesis and tissue development.

In response to a question about legislative proposals to control scientific research, such as ban on human cloning that was vetoed by Gov. Jim Doyle, Cezar was blunt about the impact she believes new restrictions would have on the scientific community in Wisconsin. “If that happened, I’d move to California.”

Cezar repeatedly emphasized the importance of stem cells for use in study of diseases and drug development, in addition to more distant goals of direct clinical applications, a position shared by Nick Seay, COO of UW spin-off Cellular Dynamics Inc., who attended the presentation.

“The biggest image that people have in their mind when they think about stem-cell companies, is companies that are making tissue or cells for transplantation, and it is not clear to me whether or not any of those companies that are aimed at that business will be able to get to a product before they run out of money,” Seay said.

Technology Council President Tom Still commented on the capital imbalance between Wisconsin and some other places, noting that while Wisconsin was the originator of stem-cell research, California has far more companies and capital to work with.

“I think we’re the leader, with an asterisk,” Still told WTN, pointing out the various strengths Wisconsin has in intellectual capital and the strong support for the research from Gov. Jim Doyle. “But the asterisk comes because there’s increasing competition in the field, and some places have been quicker to commercialize stem-cell research and opportunities than we have.”

Related WTN articles:
New study reveals potential instability in stem cells
Human stem cells called great opportunity for drug discovery

Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN in Madison. He can be reached at eric@wistechnology.com.

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