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Stem-cell debate, wireless access and other endeavors heat up

Before we launch into our full annual review of 2005, here's a quick recap of some of the developments in the last quarter. Next week we'll expand our scope and republish some of our best and most-read news stories, commentary and analysis this year.

Stem cells

They could be called Wisconsin's signature life science. Even though very few companies or organizations here outside of the University of Wisconsin work with stem cells, the scientists at the Madison campus continue to turn out discoveries that could, one day, lead to treatments or cures for degenerative diseases.

And their research remains controversial as legislators and scientists try to decide how much should be allowed, ethically, and how much needs to be allowed to bring and keep top research here.

• News story: Competition for stem cell research is fierce
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Particularly heated have been the discussions over cloning. The term draws up images of fully-grown cloned people in science-fiction movies, though in the lab scientists clone cells or embryos to work with. It has also moved beyond a matter of scientific ethics and become a partisan political debate. Republicans would like to ban any human cloning. They say it's unethical regardless of potential medical research benefits. Democrats, led by governor Jim Doyle's veto power, are blocking the ban.

What does that have to do with stem cells? One technique for generating the cells is to make a copy of a human embryo in the lab, let it grow just enough to develop stem cells, and then extract them from the embryo within the first few days. This destroys the embryo.

• News story: Doyle vetoes cloning ban

Wisconsin Technology Council president Tom Still stood up for the governor's veto:

Tom Still: Separating science fiction from reality in the human cloning debate

Meanwhile, those who believe that embryos are people continue to see current stem-cell research as involving killing. There's potential developments on that front, as well. This October, researchers announced it could be possible to obtain stem cells "using a method that does not interfere with the developmental potential of the embryo":

• News story: Researchers report development of embryonic stem cells without destroying embryo

Look for the controversy to continue in 2006 as the science of stem cells advances further and Republicans potentially ramp up the argument that the methods they are trying to ban are unnecessary anyway.

Biotech and nanotech

Wisconsin is building its national presence in both of these fields. Biotechnology continues to be centered on Madison and Milwaukee, with nanotechnology centers in the Chippewa Valley and potentially in Fitchburg, south of Madison. The process of finding investment or grant dollars, though, continues to worry these companies:

Michael Rosen: The challenge of financing today's Midwest life science companies

A development in October could change the landscape for genetics-based biotech companies. A federal appeals court made a ruling that raised the standards for patents on gene and protein technologies.

The court found that some patents being filed described were simply not useful enough to the public to warrant giving the patent filer a monopoly on the genes' use. That means companies will have a greater need for documented, concrete uses before obtaining gene or protein-related patents – unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise.

Jonathan Fritz: Court bars patent protection for certain gene fragments

Meanwhile, universities and colleges are doing their part to educate the public about just what nanotechnology is. The field's public image has been dealt some serious damage by science fiction – more so than many fields. Among people who have heard of nanotechnology from popular media, the idea of swarms of tiny little robots seems more popular than the reality that nanotechnology is mostly about making new materials, whether plastics, textiles, coatings or something else, by manipulating matter at an atomic level.

Engineers help turn science into interactive exhibits

Fitchburg Technology Campus attracts nanotechnology firms

And Chippewa Valley Technical College has been very active in building a workforce for nanotech and advanced manufacturing companies. The latest:

Nanotech students offer high end surface analysis

In the near future some of the state's biotech and nanotech research, and anything else useful to the Department of Defense, could be on classified projects that a group is trying to draw to the state.

Wisconsin consortium aims for defense business

Health records

The storms that hit the American Southeast starting in August found a nation unprepared and wondering what could be done better next time. And then we found out that the destruction of hospitals and medical records in the hurricane's path could speed along another technology that has been waiting in the wings: electronic medical records.

These records would be stored on networked computers rather than filing cabinets, in a digital form that could be backed up and saved after a disaster. Wisconsin, among other states and nations, already has initiatives in place to bring electronic health records to the fore.

• News story: Katrina's destruction likely to speed up electronic healthcare records adoption

• News story: Wisconsin pushes for adoption of electronic health records.

Wireless Internet

Who hasn't complained about all the cables and wires that come along with computer use? Wireless devices and Internet access are some of the hottest new convenience technologies that let us be more mobile and less tied down.

• News story: Demise of SkyCable is opportunity for TDS Telecom

Mike Klein: Madison, wired and unplugged

• News story: Milwaukee announces citywide wireless initiative

• News story: New alliance to provide Wi-Fi network for city of Madison

• News story: Cisco and UW-Madison announce wireless deployment

Next week:

These are some of the ongoing and recurring issues we've seen over the last quarter. Consider this a teaser for our upcoming annual review, which will have more on Wisconsin's business and entrepreneurial climate, more columnists and opinion, and more research and business advances.

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