WisBusiness.com: Thomson Warns California May Lure Wis. Researchers

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON — California may not be able to lure famed stem cell researcher James Thomson away from UW-Madison.

But Thomson, the molecular biologist who first isolated and reproduced human embryonic stem cells, believes many talented post-doctoral researchers will be headed to the Golden State.

In a fundraiser speech Thursday morning for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Thomson praised plans by Gov. Jim Doyle to spend $375 million for a new Institute of Discovery at UW-Madison.

Sporting a day-old beard and wearing stained khaki pants, tennis shoes and a rumpled sweater, he looked every bit the publicity shy scientist who prefers spending time in his lab.

“I’m not the one running for office,” he joked.


Falk, who wore business attire, is running — for a third term as county executive.

Thomson praised Doyle for backing stem cell research and putting the weight of his office behind science. 

“The governor’s plans are really good for the state, and my program will be able to compete because it is well established,” said Thomson.

“But it will be hard to attract the brightest people here when they can go to the West Coast and get a $10 million lab,” he said.

California voters last month passed Proposition 71, a $3 billion referendum to fund stem cell research in that state.

“It’s going to be a zoo out there,” said Thomson, whose face has been on the cover of Time Magazine.

“And a lot of money will be spent badly. But it will still be tough for us to compete for the best minds.”

Thomson said California voters who were told the referendum would pay for itself in five years will be disappointed.

However, the proposition should pay off in 15-20 years in the creation of new biotech firms and the advancements coming from them will be remarkable, he said.

Though Thomson might be able to write his own ticket in California, he said he plans to stay put — for now.

“Wisconsin has been very good to me,” the Chicago native said. “So I have no plans to go anywhere.”

After the speech, he added: “I’m never entirely happy. Yet as long as I feel like I am doing important work here, I’ll be fairly content.”

About 125 business leaders attended the talk at the Madison Club, which Falk campaign spokeswoman Melissa Mulliken said raised about $60,000.

Falk praised Thomson as a homegrown talent whose research has the potential to bring “tremendous” economic opportunities to the county.

She also lauded the business people at the fundraiser and said she wants to maintain Dane County’s high quality of life and make it the kind of place where they can prosper. 

Thomson devoted most of his speech to explaining the significance of embryonic stem cells, which can replicate indefinitely and give rise to any of 220 kinds of cells found in the body.

Thomson and other scientists believe that such cells could profoundly change medicine, yielding treatments and cures for hundreds of diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s.

He said the use of stem cells for transplants is many years away. But he said researchers will use them to learn the effects of drugs on specific types of cells.

He also told the audience he supports the study of adult stem cells. Unlike embryonic stem cells, however, he said they may hold less scientific value because they cannot be reproduced infinitely.