WisBusiness: Stem cell industry hopes state’s move pushes feds to act

By Brian E. Clark

One of California’s top stem cell researchers said Thursday he welcomed news that UW-Madison plans to build a $375 million Institute of Discovery to work on regenerative medicine.

Gov. Jim Doyle laid out plans for the facility on Wednesday. It follows the Nov. 2 passage of Prop. 71 in California, which will pump $3 billion into stem cell research over the next decade.

UW-Madison’s facility will be built in three phases on two blocks of University Avenue. It will house the labs of elite researchers, including Dr. James Thomson, who first isolated human embryonic stem cells in 1998.

"I think it is a great idea," said Evan Snyder, who heads the stem cell and regeneration program at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla.

"The more institutes of excellence we have, the quicker the field will move and the more opportunities we will have to collaborate together," Burnham said.

Similarly, the head of a trade association representing California’s life science community lauded the Wisconsin development. So did an independent Madison economist and a hard-nosed Milwaukee venture capitalist.

"It is great that other states are doing this," said San Diego-based Joe Panetta, president and CEO of the BIOCOM trade group. "But the bottom line is massive funding on a federal scale is really what is necessary to conduct this basic research that will lead to cures.

"We’re not out to compete with anybody, we are out to cure diseases through stem cell research,"
he said.

Snyder, a physician and former Harvard scientist, said he envisions a number of regenerative centers of medicine around the United States.

"Maybe, when the Bush Administration sees states and scientists taking this into their own hands, they may make more federal funding available," he said. "We can only hope."

Though the new Madison facility will improve working conditions for UW scientists, Snyder said he did not believe California could have lured Thomson away.

"I know Jamie and no one really thought he would pick up and move to California," he said, chuckling. "The real fear has been that that scientists would be hamstrung with political restrictions and be unable to realize their potential."

"With California and Wisconsin making these commitments, perhaps New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts will agitate for similar institutes," he said.

"Ideally, we could pool resources, data, personnel and projects and create a seamless consortium for work on stem cell and regenerative medicine. That’s my dream."

David J. Ward, who heads NorthStar Economics, said that while the some of the dollar figures trumpeted by university officials and Gov. Doyle included projects already in the works, the size of the Institute of Discovery is quite impressive.

"This proposal has some scale to it," he said. "And the problem in Wisconsin has been scale. This will be a major asset and will be a center of excellence. It is right on the mark."

While it can’t match the $3 billion California plans to spend, Ward said it is worthy of national attention.

"This is more than ‘feel good’ stuff," he said. "
It has focus to it and centers on areas where the state has a strong foundation.

"It’s not just a pipe dream because stem cell research has always been regarded as our baby,"
he said.

Ward said biotechnology of this kind could have major payoffs for the Wisconsin’s economy in the future.

I think the governor got it right here and I think even some of the Republican opposition may come on board,"
he said.

John Byrnes, executive managing partner of Mason Wells Private Equity in Milwaukee, applauded the announcement
and said the state must continue to invest in technology in order to develop high-tech industries in Wisconsin.

"I think public-private funding of this institute is the way to proceed," he said. "But this should not be the end, it should just be the beginning.

"We have a long way to go to commercialize stem cell technology and there are enormous business challenges to create therapies and products of value," he said.

But Byrnes said he is optimistic that tissue regeneration could be one of the first efforts to become commercially viable.

"We could be the global center for tissue regeneration," he said. "It won’t happen next year, but there is the potential for it to happen in five to 10 years.

Thomson is ahead of what many people realize and has already isolated and cloned major tissue groups from the heart, nervous system and muscles.

"Our problem, though, is that while we are very good at making scientific breakthroughs, we aren’t very good at exploiting them commercially and turning them into businesses here," he said.

"Business is what reduces theory to practice," he said. "We need business people who will lead high-tech companies. It’s my personal view that the state needs to create a fund to invest in the infrastructure to encourage the creation of those kinds of firms.

"This Institute of Discovery and related efforts can only help," he said. "Perhaps we should thank California and its Prop. 71 for stimulating this to happen."