03 Oct WiCell to host new national stem cell bank
Madison, Wis. — The WiCell Research Institute’s announcement Monday that it has been awarded a prestigious four-year, $16 million federal contract to create the nation’s first National Stem Cell Bank is a sign of respect for the state’s pioneering and innovative approach to the new field of research.
But, in the face of continued Wisconsin legislative opposition to embryonic stem cell research, the path forward is anything but simple.
Embryonic stem cells are so-called “blank slate” cells that can evolve into any type of adult cell. Researchers are very interested in them because of their potential use in the fields of drug discovery, human development and disease treatment.
On Monday, a star-studded panel of scientists, politicians, and university administrators gathered in a conference room at the MG&E Innovation Center in Madison to announce the contract, which was won by UW-Madison over competition from several other universities and research centers. The negotiations with NIH were closed, so no information was available on those competitors.
Stem cell research pioneer James Thomson was among those present at the announcement, as was Gov. Jim Doyle, U.S. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley, UW System Board of Regents President David Walsh, UW System President Kevin Reilly, and Derek J. Hei, technical director of the Wisconsin Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility at UW-Madison.
Baldwin called the news “a tribute to Dr. Thomson and his colleagues.”
Thomson, WiCell scientific director and professor of anatomy at UW-Madison, said, “The selection of WiCell as the NSCB is a great honor and a great responsibility. Funding of the NSCB will greatly increase WiCell’s ability to serve the human ES cell research community, as it will dramatically reduce the cost of these cell lines to investigators and encourage their more widespread use.
“Although the creation of this center is very important, I hope that NIH will ultimately decide to fund additional similar centers across the United States to support this rapidly expanding field,” Thomson added.
Baldwin said the selection shows the quality of work done at WiCell.
“The scientific community clearly recognizes the significance and quality of the work done at WiCell,” she said. But she was critical of the political furor over embryonic stem cell research, in both the Wisconsin legislature and Congress. “Sadly, the politics are trumping science, and I condemn efforts to criminalize such important research.”
Last week, the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill to ban cloning for both reproductive and research purposes. While scientists agree with the ban on reproductive cloning, they disagree with legislative opposition to cloning for research purposes. Such research is necessary to advance understanding in the areas of drug discovery and human development, among others.
(Click here to read the WTN story on the cloning ban vote.)
The cloning ban would not stymie the new National Stem Cell Bank, because it expects to work with established cell lines only. But Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has said he will veto the bill.
“This doesn’t get that complicated for me,” Doyle said at the news conference. “I meet frequently with moms and dads of kids with juvenile diabetes. The thought that a line of research would be cut off is unthinkable.”
The new National Stem Cell Bank carries several goals. Chief among them is to provide a “one-stop-shop” that will do three main things: lower stem cells costs to researchers, provide quality control and comprehensive comparisons of stem cell lines, and offer better technical support.
As of now, 312 shipments of stem cell lines have been sent to researchers in the United States and 21 foreign countries. But the $5,000 price per line has been “an irritant” to other scientists, said Carl Gulbrandsen, WiCell board president and managing director of WARF, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The new price will be $500. That will make the stem cell lines available to a greater number of scientists, he said.
Scientists wish to understand the properties of as many individual stem cell lines as possible and to standardize methods for growing them. While the WiCell Institute now has the rights to five lines of embryonic stem cells, other research institutions maintain separate lines. Six are in Australia at ES Cell International, and an agreement has already been reached for the new stem cell bank to distribute those lines. Eleven other lines are at research institutions in other states and foreign countries. No agreements have yet been reached with those institutions.
Gulbrandsen, sporting a denim blue “WiCell” baseball cap at the news conference, said the new stem cell bank would be challenging to maintain, “both politically and mechanically.”
“The contract has a lot in it. It means we will have to do a lot more hiring,” he said.
Unfortunately, the political squabbling has already interfered, said Andrew Cohn, WARF government and public relations manager. “The legislature is anti-science,” he said, speaking a few minutes before the start of the press conference. “It makes it that much more difficult to recruit the best scientists, the best companies, and venture capital to fund those companies.”
He cited an example. “We are interviewing for an executive director for WiCell, and have met five people so far. We ask them if they have any questions. They say yes.”
“They say, `I read that the legislators are trying to make the scientists felons,'” Cohn said. “So people are concerned.”