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Gulbrandsen: UW's stem cell program primed for growth

Six years after UW-Madison researcher James Thomson isolated them, stem cells are still a hot national issue -- economically, politically and strategically.

Last month Gov. Jim Doyle announced a $375 million initiative to build the Institute of Discovery on the UW-Madison campus to bolster biotechnology, health sciences and stem cell research – part of $750 million the state has targeted toward biomedical research over the next several years. The announcement came a couple of weeks after voters in California approved a $3 billion ballot measure to pump up stem cell research in that state over the next decade, a move that could set off a bidding war for stem cell researchers.

There are 50 scientists in Madison involved in stem cell research, where more than one-third of the $25 million in federal dollars awarded in 2004 landed in Wisconsin last year.

While the re-election of President George Bush may slow scientific efforts to work with new stem cell lines, it may benefit UW research. Citing moral and ethical grounds, Bush limited federally funded stem cell research to lines derived before August 2001 – great news for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and WiCell Research Institute, which licenses the old stem cell lines to researchers.

Carl E. Gulbrandsen, managing director of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and president of WiCell Research Institute, spoke recently with WisBusiness.com's Brian Leaf about recent developments involving stem cells and their implications for Wisconsin.

Brian Leaf: The news here recently has been about the governor's initiative. Can you tell me what's different between this and Tommy Thompson's BioStar Initiative from 1999?

Carl Gulbrandsen: There was a fourth BioStar building that was designated as a multidisciplinary biology building and it's very ill defined. As I understand it, they've taken it and incorporated it into this bigger project, which is actually a very exciting, interesting proposition. It would incorporate all of computer science, bioinformatics, engineering, nanotechnology and biology in a very sophisticated complex where the departments interact as much as possible. There is discussion that this would have more freedoms that the ordinary center. I don't know if they could go as far as to make it quasi-private like the UW Hospital, but one of the issues at the university and at any state university is trying to get your work done when you have to deal with various bureaucratic requirements that ordinary research institutions don't deal with, such as purchasing, hiring. Right now we deal with some strange, archaic laws with respect to self dealing and part of this initiative was to get so me of these laws changed, to get rid of the bureaucracy.

Leaf: So you're looking at this as a streamlined way to do business?

Yes. It would have a private component as well as a public component. The private component being an area for hatcheries or incubators where the private sector could interact more freely with university scientists and try to pull this technology out. There needs to be something between the laboratory and the research park. They've just developed one at the engineering college where faculty members can actually conduct business in these units and not offend state law. That's been a problem at the university. When somebody wants to do a startup and take care of some of the business of the startup but they aren't to the point where they need sophisticated facilities ... all they need is a place where they have a phone, a fax. You can't do that in your university office. So this center would provide things like that.

Leaf: What was the reaction to California's $3 billion investment they're toying with for stem cell research? And is this a response to that?

It is in part a response to that. The governor took it very seriously. He had meetings with the chancellor (John Wiley) and Jamie Thomson and with some of our people and indicated he wanted to make sure we could stay competitive and we wouldn't lose the scientists that we have. We've always been competitive with institutions that have a lot greater resources than Wisconsin has. And yet we have done a good job. In the stem cell area, we're ahead already. The big concern is that if there is an enormous amount of money made available out there that the price tag goes up on trying to recruit and keep good talent. That is going to be expensive. It'll probably take some public private partnerships to make sure that we keep those scientists.

Leaf: So five years from now what's this going to look like? What's your vision of how this will play out?

Well in five years I hope they have the first phase done of this and the design for what the organizational structure will be of this center. I would expect that you would have an appointed board and an executive director overseeing the center. I would expect that WiCell will be considerably bigger than it is now and the whole stem cell area on this campus will have twice the number of scientists and two or three or three times the amount of grant dollars that we have for stem cell research. I also think the spin-offs of this – and one of the exciting things they're talking about here with a multidisciplinary nature by bringing in engineering and computer science – you're going to see more than just biology being done. You're going to see wonderful engineering done. Material science and so forth, things that Wisconsin has always been strong in, will be stronger. The location of the facility is ideal, between biotech and biochemistry, engineering. You're going to see a lot of activity here, both in the public and private side.

Leaf: Now the governor announced Monday the creation of a network to promote entrepreneurship. I take it that is a separate initiative.

It is.

Leaf: Well what is that about?

The Commerce Department has had a RFP out there to set up four centers of entrepreneurship around the state to work with both the private sector and the other universities of the UW system, and other entities like the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marshfield clinic and so forth. To really look at these centers are centers of economic development and staff them with people who are skilled in areas of intellectual property and economic development. A little bit like Tech Star, but doing a similar thing throughout the state, but this will be broader.

Leaf: It will focus on high tech?

I didn't understand that the initiative is directed at that, but it is probably weighted toward that. It's looking at stimulating entrepreneurial business. It might not be high tech.

Leaf: Illinois is looking at starting a tax to fund biotech. It would be a tax on plastic surgeries and using that to fund for stem cell research.

I guess that will mean more people will come to Wisconsin for plastic surgery.

Leaf: I think what it points to is that everybody wants a piece of stem cells.

I think so. But we don't know what will result with the bond initiative in California. They have to sell the bonds first. They're trying to put together this institute and there is a lot of fighting already on how this is going to work. But my perspective has been enormously positive in that it has brought to center stage the potential economic value of this to all of the states. And we're sitting here in the state of Wisconsin having taken it a long ways in development and I think we have a lot of potential economic value here. I think we'll make a lot of money in California and bring it back to Wisconsin.

Leaf: Good plan!

Well, they've got to license it if they're going to use it. We do have an office in San Diego and I've said to others that in retrospect it might have been the smartest thing we've done in a long time. We'll make sure that everyone who wants to do stem cell research will get a license from us.

Leaf: Jamie Thomson was interesting in his comments in that he was embarrassed about how much attention stem cells have received.

That's something that WARF struggles with, too. People shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we have very exciting technologies across the campus here. Our portfolio is bulging with great stuff. So the challenge to us is to keep our priorities in focus, that these other great technologies need our attention, too.

Leaf: Politically, when you look at how the election went nationally, the Republicans weren't in favor of stem cell research. How does that play into what's going into Wisconsin? Is there going to be less federal money available?

No. I was disappointed that it became such a political issue because every time you politicize science, science loses. We already had good relationships with people on both sides of the aisle. We've done very well from NIH (National Institutes of Health) in respect to the grants we've received, both to WiCell and to the university for stem cell research. What it does mean is that because they did politicize it, I think it is unlikely that you will see in the first two years, and possibly the next four years of the Bush administration any further relaxation to their policies of what they will fund. But they won't pull back on the lines that we have. So for the next two, and possibly four years, if people want to use federal dollars for research they will be using our cells. That does help bring some money back to fund the overall project. I think that if they had relaxed it completely the importance of our cell lines would have gone down some. The issue with respect to other cell lines, I think the scientists here at Wisconsin are saying the time has come, we've done enough basic research that there is a reason to derive new stem cell lines. We need to do that research, too. There are a number of reasons for it, not the least of which the immediate conditions that the original cells were derived on. We have a researcher at the Waisman Center who would like to study Fragile X (a chromosomal disorder). It would be nice to have access to lines that represented that genetic defect. There are some available out of state and we would like to get them here, but that research will have to be funded privately, that is important research, something the federal government ought to fund.

While the California initiative was positive from the standpoint that it helped people awaken to the economic possibilities of the technology and the importance of the technology, it is disappointing from a public policy standpoint. If they are successful, you will have a terrible imbalance in this country in respect to funding. California will create its own rules. That is not good public policy.


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