17 Nov Wisconsin governor calls for $750 million investment in life sciences
Madison, Wis. — Wisconsin should hold on to its advantage in health and life-science research by drawing together $375 million in public and private funding for a new research center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Governor Jim Doyle said on Wednesday.
He also called for the Legislature to repeal regulatory hurdles that can get in the way of professors forming businesses around their discoveries.
Doyle displayed plans for the new center, named the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, at a press conference in the university’s Genetics and Biotechnology Center before making the same announcement at the Wisconsin Life Sciences and Venture Conference.
Biochemistry, nanotechnology, computer engineering and bioinformatics researchers would share the institute and would work closely with the private sector. Doyle was not certain how much state funding it would require, but said the amount would be significant. It will require approval from the Legislature and the state Building Commission.
Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, said the university has already begun to raise funds and expects two-thirds of the project to be underwritten by private sources.
- Read special guest commentary from Carl Gulbrandsen on Wisconsin’s leadership in stem-cell research.
“There is great research in Wisconsin, and this represents a further validation of the academic research grants and venture investments we are already making in Wisconsin,” said Dan Broderick, managing director of Mason Wells, a private equity firm.
This new institute would replace an entire block along University Avenue and Johnson Street, located at a point of convergence between the biotechnology, chemistry, engineering and computer science buildings.
Construction is planned to start in 2005 and finish around 2011, taking place in three phases. When done, the planned center would have 750,000 gross square feet of space for labs and other facilities.
Coffee and science
“A lot of what goes on in science happens during casual conversations,” said UW-Madison stem-cell researcher James Thomson, who accompanied the governor. For example, scientists working on different projects might meet in the hallway or on a coffee break and find that their research can be combined to create something new.
That doesn’t happen when scientists are scattered across different facilities, said Thomson, who hopes the centrally located interdisciplinary facility will draw people together.
There is plenty for them to do. In stem cells and in biotechnology in general, the field is full of unanswered questions.
“We now have the sequence of the human genome – it’s complete – but we don’t know what it means yet,” Thomson said.
He said further developments using stem cells would give researchers unprecedented access to a variety of human cells, and not just for transplants after the fact. Replacing damaged tissue, he said, is crude compared to advance treatments that could prevent the body from deteriorating in the first place.
Doyle downplayed the state’s need to compete with California in stem-cell research, saying that California is now playing “catch-up.” Wisconsin could not match the $3 billion funding for stem-cell research that Californian voters have approved, he said, but this state already has important researchers in the field, such as James Thomson.
Doyle said Wisconsin should put $105 million over the next five years into the University of Wisconsin Medical School and the Medical College of Wisconsin, earmarked for medical and bioscience research.
He said discoveries in either state would help researchers in the other, and that Californian researchers would need to license some fundamental stem-cell technologies from WARF.
Jim Leonhart, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, approved of Doyle’s proposals.
“I think the California thing required a forceful response,” he said. “And this is a forceful response.”
Focus on Alzheimer’s
The institute will also build on research efforts into Alzheimer’s disease, for which Doyle is proposing $1.5 million per year with the intent to compete for recognition by the National Institutes of Health as a supported Alzheimer’s center.
While stem cells might one day lead to a way of regenerating brain tissues and treating Alzheimer’s, they are not the only way. Thomson even expressed embarrassment that they receive so much media coverage compared to other areas of research.
Doyle cited the work of Jeffrey Johnson, a UW-Madison professor in pharmaceutical sciences, who published a paper this September on a way to stop Alzheimer’s disease in mice by manipulating a protein.
WARF has filed a patent on the method, he said, and a company is already forming to develop a theraputic product around it.
Another Wisconsin company, QRG Bioscience, is taking a different approach to examining neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It, too, could stand to benefit from state investment in the field.
“I think that helps us get to the market quicker and get us through the FDA approval process,” said Mark Underwood, a vice president of QRG. “Being able to take some of the state resources and being able to put them into biotechnology directly will add fuel to the fire.”
Regulating public commerce
A law originally intended to fight corruption among government officials is now getting in the way of university faculty starting businesses with their discoveries, said Charles Hoslet, managing director of UW-Madison’s Office of Corporate Relations.
“It’s a law that was put in place probably 100 years ago that was designed to prohibit public officials who had control over, for example, where the highways went … to profit from decisions made in their public role,” he said.
Now, though, it means professors may need to get special dispensation from the state attorney general to commercialize technologies they developed in their labs, including refinements that were funded privately, or face felony charges.
The attorney general’s office usually does not stand in the way, Hoslet said, but the law is an inconvenience.
“It just takes time,” he said. “Companies don’t always have the luxury of saying, ‘We’ll wait two or three months.’ [And] no lawyer is going to say ‘Go ahead and do it; it’s probably OK,’ when you could go to jail if you’re wrong.”
Doyle said he wanted to ease the restriction for professors.
By using private funding, the institute might also be able to embark on studies that federal funding won’t cover under the Bush administration, such as the creation of new stem-cell lines. This would require an entire section of the institute to use private funds exclusively, as any federal funding is prohibited to groups that make new cultures of the cells.
The fourth BioStar
The site where the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery will be built was originally intended for the fourth building of the state’s BioStar Initiative, which funds the development of research institutions. The project grew beyond that, Wiley said.
Doyle is also supporting a $134 million HealthStar research complex near the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital and Clinics, and a $132 million facility at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Children’s Hospital, in Milwaukee.
The funding that would have gone to the BioStar building will go to the new Institute for Discovery, Wiley said, but this will not necessarily be part of the BioStar project.
“I think the insitute itself will be a quasi-independent entity,” he said.
Jason Stitt is WTN’s associate editor and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Klein contributed reporting from the Life Sciences and Venture Conference