WisBusiness: Wisconsin worried by California’s new $3B in stem cell funding

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – California’s passage earlier this week of a $3 billion ballot measure to fund embryonic stem cell research could be disastrous for Wisconsin, mean little or fall somewhere in between.

Science and business officials were all over the map Thursday, trying to figure out the potential impacts of Prop. 71, which will pump more than $300 million a year for the next decade into a new California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

UW-Madison scientists, by comparison, received roughly $27 million in mostly federal aid for stem cell research this year.

Andy Cohn, spokesman for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, said UW-Madison has the world’s leaders in stem cell research. The foundation controls the university’s patents.

“We have the team that discovered this whole area,” he said. “And we have every intention of keeping them.”

Still, he said, the state should be concerned that California might try to lure away the Badger State’s best researchers.

Top scientists at UW-Madison include James Thomson, who six years ago isolated the first human embryonic stem cell lines; and Clive Svendsen, who directs the stem cell research rogram at the Waisman Center.

Neither man was available for comment Thursday. But at a public lecture on Monday, Thomson said he had no plans to leave UW-Madison.

Cohn said he hopes the Prop. 71 will send a strong message to the state Legislature and the federal government and perhaps increase funding for Wisconsin researchers.

“If 60 percent of the people in the country’s largest state are willing to add tremendous debt to find treatments and cures for the world’s most devastating, it should mean something,” he said.

Though President Bush won reelection with the help of conservatives who oppose embryonic stem cell research on moral grounds, Cohn said he hopes Bush will change his stance in his second term.

Funding embryonic stem cell research also could reap economic benefits to Wisconsin, he said.

“At the least, I hope the Legislature and the federal government don’t do anything to impede stem cell research here,” he said.

In the end, he said WARF stands to benefit from Prop. 71.

“None of the companies that want to do research can do it without a license from WARF,” he said.

James Leonhart, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, said Prop. 71 will make California the eventual leader in stem cell research.

“It won’t be immediate,” he said. “But California will soon be out in front of the curve. And private money will flow to where the leadership is.

“It should be a wake-up call that we can’t lose this great research lead,” he said. “We are really behind the eight-ball now.”

Leonhart said he, too, hopes the Bush will boost its support for embryonic stem cell research, now that he has reelected.

“Maybe (former Wisconsin Gov.) Tommy Thompson can help change his mind,” Leonhart said. Thompson is now the federal Health and Human Services Secretary, but he has hinted for awhile that he will return to Wisconsin in January and not serve a second term. Recent reports, however, have him staying on in the administration.

“In any event, Wisconsin has to been more aggressive about getting more research money,” Leonhart said. “Great science leads to great discoveries. It has to continue here in Wisconsin.”