Chicago — A swath of Wisconsin biotech companies had their chance to be heard at the Wisconsin Pavilion at BIO Chicago, but the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus’ planned Institutes for Discovery stole the show when the governor arrived with two of the state’s top stem-cell researchers.
“Wisconsin is the right place, and this is the right time, for stem cell research,” said professor Gabriela Cezar, who moved from Brazil to be a part of the university here. Over the next few years, the university will gain another draw for researchers in the Institutes for Discovery, whose first $150 million in funding was announced last week.
James Thomson, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who first isolated human embryonic stem cells, said it’s only a matter of time before stem cells, now a major focus of research but seeing limited commercialization, break out into the global medical industry.
“Big Pharma is going to be doing this,” Thomson said. “It’s just a question of when. They’re very conservative about getting into new things.”
Though he still spends most of his time at his day job as a UW professor, Thomson also holds positions with WiCell, a private non-profit administered by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and Cellular Dynamics, a private company that is commercializing non-stem-cell biotechnology and is working toward commercial opportunities with embryonic stem cells.
He may also move at least some of his operations to the Institutes for Discovery once they are built. That could mean his own lab, or those of post-docs; Elizabeth Donley, general counsel for WARF, said one main purpose of the facility could be to incubate creative post-docs working with professors whose labs remain in the university proper.
She said WARF would run about 40 percent of the facility, the private Morgridge Institute, while the university would run the rest, probably as part of its graduate school. Much of the space is being built with the ability to be convertable between wet and dry lab space, so that it can be customized to the not quite certain needs of researchers who could come from many different departments in biotechnology, medicine, engineering or computer science.
“It’s a really great way to cross-pollinate different ideas,” Donley said.
“I just saw a headline that said New Jersy leads in stem-cell research. It ain’t true!” Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle said to appreciative chuckles at the Wisconsin Pavilion at an event for press and visitors, just before the exhibit hall closed and attendees headed out to parties and receptions.
Whether it was direct challenges or University Research Park director Mark Bugher’s good-natured ribbing of Thomson for being an adopted Illinoisan, the environment on the BIO show floor made it hard to forget that states are locked in a struggle to draw the best, brightest and most job-creating companies and scientists.
One of the reasons states are focusing on biotechnology – and why the BIO exhibit floor was dominated by advertisements for states and countries more than companies – is that biotechnology jobs pay well and create support jobs.
The Insitutes for Discovery are part of Wisconsin’s most recent bid for talent, as well as being a place for university faculty from diverse departments and corporate researchers to mix.
Moving past restrictions
Thomson said that in time, he thinks federal restrictions on stem-cell research will be lifted or at least eased. In the meantime, private research and public-private partnerships are taking over.
At the Institutes for Discovery, the same researchers may work on either side of the thin divide between the WARF-administered and University facilities. Their funding and research, however, will need to remain separate so that restrictions can be complied with.
“It’s not too dissimilar in a management sense to the way WiCell operates,” Gulbrandsen said.
Even now, WARF is moving toward setting up a “virtual institute” by this fall, soliciting grant applications for projects. Patterns or trends in the applications will also be used to shape the future and emphasis of the institutes.
All this signals a certain urgency to retain leadership in rapidly developing fields of biotechnology. Whether public or private research will end up advancing furthest is an open question. Private funding can be hard to come by in fields that are not only technically risky and slow to market but also politically controversial. And public policy may not change soon.
“If you were an administrator at the NIH, would you push an agenda here given the position of the administration?” Thomson asked.