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Alliance looks to create the right chemistry in SE Wisconsin

Milwaukee, Wis. — On a day when the fledgling Biomedical Technology Alliance (BTA) took a major step from concept to reality, receiving $500,000 from the Wisconsin Dept. of Commerce and another $500,000 in matching grants, it was an anecdote from a chemistry professor that showed the promise for formalizing pathways for collaboration between academic researchers.

In what could be an example of the kind of cross-institutional partnerships that are expected to result from the BTA, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor James Cook related how he found the technical expertise to test his research across town at Marquette University, when he was initially looking as far away as San Diego.

"When David Baker [a biology professor at Marquette] called me, I nearly fell out my chair," said Cook, who, together with his team of graduate researchers at UWM, has developed a compound to treat anxiety that has been licensed to Bristol-Myers Squibb.

"We have isolated the compounds that could help treat schizophrenia, and to find out that we have people across town who can look at the behavioral biology of our compounds, it means that we can test this so much faster," Cook said.

First licensing agreement for UWM
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The BTA formed in 2004 for to foster research collaboration and commercialization.

The simultaneous announcement of the first-ever licensing agreement of its kind and the formal launch of the BTA was designed to show that UWM and the four other participating institutions - the Medical College of Wisconsin, Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, and UW-Parkside - are poised to play a role as a catalyst for economic development in southeast Wisconsin, said UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago.

Based on early research, the compound developed by Cook and his team of graduate assistants has demonstrated an effect similar to anti-anxiety drugs Valium, Xanax and Librium, but without the unwanted side effects.

Proceeds from the licensing agreement with Bristol-Myers Squibb will support further research into the drug compounds that Cook has discovered, potentially moving from the lab to commercialization. Cook and his team have isolated similar compounds that could one day be effective in the treatment of schizophrenia, alcoholism, epilepsy and Alzheimer's disease.

"I think we have the ingredients here: exceptional students and dedicated faculty," Cook said. "But we can't do it without partnerships."

The draw of UWM

"There is great science that goes on at all our universities throughout the system," said Carl Gulbrandsen, a managing director of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and president of WiSys. "UW-Milwaukee is one of our most important universities, and we think it's a treasure trove for research. We have great hope for Milwaukee to make the university an economic engine for the region."

WiSys is a WARF subsidiary that obtains patents and licenses on research done at UW institutions other than Madison. Cook and his team of 11 graduate assistants and two post-doctorate scientists developed the compound three years ago, but negotiating the licensing agreement took an additional two years to complete, Gulbrandsen said.

In bioscience circles, UWM's chemistry program is nationally known for its ability to synthesize natural products to develop better compounds that could lead to drugs that will bind tighter to receptors in the brain. It was this distinction, for example, that led graduate student Edward Johnson to come to Milwaukee on the recommendation from scientists at the National Institutes of Health.

"This is the only group I could find that does both hardcore natural product synthesis and medical chemistry," said Johnson, who is from West Virginia. "We are the only ones who can design and synthesize these two areas. That is very difficult chemistry."

Beginnings of BTA

As of Friday, the BTA had received requests for grants for over $2 million from 23 applicants, said Brian Thompson, a managing director for TechStar, which is a founding member of the BTA. The proposals came from over 50 researchers from MSOE, UWM, Marquette and the Medical College, with the majority of the proposals in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. Somewhere between 10 to 15 projects could receive funding, Thompson said.

State budget cuts last summer mean the BTA is starting out with $1 million instead of the $5 million originally planned for. On Tuesday, BTA supporters preferred to look at the glass as half-full instead of dwelling on the loss of funding.

"I think the program is already beginning to meet its objectives - it has already started," Thompson said. "This program has forced researchers to reach out across institutional boundaries in ways they have never done before. There is already some collaboration going on - smart people will find each other and work together. We are trying to bring that to the next level with the BTA."

Doyle said Tuesday that he hopes the $500,000 grant will represent one-fifth of the state's eventual contribution. Through a spokesman, state senator Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield), a BTA supporter and a critic of governor Doyle's decision to cut funding, said it is unlikely that additional BTA funding from the state will be addressed until the next budget cycle in 2007.

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