22 Jan Thomson: Wisconsin needs $50M annually to counter California's stem cell investment
Madison, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who first isolated human embryonic stem cells said Tuesday that Wisconsin would have to spend $50 million annually on stem cell research to keep pace with California on a per capita basis.
James Thomson, who spoke on the past and future of stem cell research at the monthly luncheon of the Madison chapter of the Wisconsin Innovation Network, said Stanford and the University of California-San Francisco, alone, receive on the order of $15 million a year a piece.
To counterbalance California’s overall commitment of $3 billion, approved by voters in 2004 as part of Proposition 71, he said Wisconsin would have to increase spending for embryonic stem cell research to the $50 million mark.
“We will have our work cut out for us competing with those dollars because it does draw talent,” he said.
In Wisconsin, the likelihood of ramped up stem cell investment grew when Thomson and other scientists announced a new technique to derive stem cells without destroying embryos. Thomson’s team of researchers successfully reprogrammed human skin cells to perform as embryonic stem cells.
The technique Thomson helped develop in 1998 involved the destruction of embryos, sparking social controversy and leading to a presidential ban on funding beyond existing stem cell lines. The new technique has alleviated that concern, prompting UW-Madison officials to call for additional federal funding beyond existing stem cell lines and one lawmaker, State Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, to call for $25 million in state funding for UW-Madison to conduct stem cell research that does not destroy embryos.
Thomson told the WIN gathering that he is very optimistic about the potential of embryonic stem cell research to produce effective therapies within the next 10 years, but acknowledged there would be some hiccups. While he is very optimistic over time, he said people are expecting things too fast.
“In 10 years, I think there will be therapies,” he said. “A lot of them will fail and people will not be prepared for that, but some will yield good therapies.”
Thomson’s latest stem cell technique is not the only one that holds the promise of producing stem cells with destroying embryos. Another technique, first announced in 2006, has been further refined, according to a recent study published in the journal Stem Cell. With that technique, scientists extracted a single cell from an eight-cell human embryo, and coaxed that cell to become a master stem-cell line. That line was then manipulated in a lab and became various other tissue types found in the body such as nerve cells.
Robert Lanza, senior author of the study and chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology, believes the company could immediately supply fresh stem cells to federal researchers.
This development did not come without some trial and error, and the latest experiment builds on previous studies by Lanza and his colleagues. In August 2006, his team reported that it had produced single cells from human embryos and used them to generate stem-cell lines. The experiment established “proof-of-principle,” but it was inefficient. Only two percent of the plucked cells yielded stem-cell lines.
Lanza now says the approach has been upgraded so that at least 20 percent yield stem-cell lines, and further improvements took the efficiency as high as 50 percent.
One hope of stem-cell science is that such freshly derived tissue could one day be transplanted into patients to treat diseases. Thomson, who characterized Lanza’s technique as viable, says stem cell transplantation is a long way off.
The challenges for transplantation using human embryonic stem cells include making a cell type that’s of interest, safety concerns (including cancer), immune rejection, preventing the process that originally killed cells, and integrating the cells in a physiologically useful form.
Since the new technique involves a person’s own skin cells, one of the barriers has been scratched of the list. ”Immune rejection is the one that this new technology really does change,” Thomson said.
Applications like the making of red blood cells with stem cells have fewer challenges, he said. “We can make good ones, but can we do so economically? By the time I retire, blood products will be manufactured, and they will be safer and we will have fewer shortages,” said Thomson, who is a partner in two stem cell companies, Cellular Dynamics International and Stem Cell Products, Inc.
Stem Cell Products has received $1 million in state funding for its development of processes to make blood products from human embryonic stem cells. It intends to develop techniques to permit industrial-scale manufacturing of embryonic stem cell-derived blood products for use in military hospitals and other human clinical settings.
Thomson credits his earlier work with primates – he isolated and cultured non-human primate cells before he isolated and cultured human embryonic stem cells – for subsequent human embryonic stem cell discoveries. He also credits his work with human embryonic stem cells for the development of the reprogramming technique. Even now that he has developed a new, less controversial technique, he continues to tout the value of human embryonic stem cell research.
“Had we not done that previous work with embryos,” Thomson said, “this new work would not have happened.”
Since President Bush announced his ban on federal funding beyond existing human embryonic stem cell lines, federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research has remained at the $25 million to $30 million mark. The president’s policy was challenged in separate bills voted out of Congress in 2006 and 2007, but met with sustainable vetoes each time.
The new techniques eventually could bring change at the federal level, but Thomson cited another barrier – funding for the Iraq War, which he says is “squeezing everything.” Eventually, “there will be increased (federal) investment,” he said. “Whether it matches what’s happening in California remains to be seen.”
• UW-Madison, WARF want federal funding for new stem cell technique
• Tom Still: Reykjavik connection: How teamwork produced a stem cell breakthrough
• Barbara Lyons: Wisconsin Right to Life applauds new stem cell discovery
• Tom Still: Five reasons why Wisconsin is positioned to ride the wave of stem-cell research
• New stem cell technique could end social controversy