WisBusiness: National Stem Cell Bank Spins Out First Private Sector Work

By Brian E. Clark

Nimblegen Systems is the first Madison company to benefit from Monday’s announcement by the National Institutes of Health to base the National Stem Cell Bank at the WiCell Research Institute.

Emile Nuwaysir, vice president of business development at Nimblegen, said Monday his company is a partner in the four-year contract WiCell was awarded by the NIH. Nimblegen will receive $1 million for its work “characterizing” human embryonic stem cell lines.

“We have the means to monitor the lines to see how they might change over time,” Nuwaysir said.

WiCell, an arm of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, will receive $16 million to establish the bank. It will serve the international research community by acquiring, storing and performing comprehensive studies on human embryonic stem cell lines already approved for federal funding.

It will provide a centralized warehouse for those lines and distribute them to investigators. The bank will maintain uniform quality control and will cut costs to researchers from $5,000 per line to $500.

WiCell currently manages five of the 21 available federally approved lines. The other lines come from labs in Georgia, California, Australia, Sweden, Korea and Israel. Officials said they believe holders of most of the other lines will agree to bank them in Madison.

Roland Green, NimbleGen’s chief technology officer, said WiCell will use his company’s technology to insure the quality of cell lines.

“The best thing for us is that it will set the standard for science in this field,” he said.

“We are excited because if other people want to characterize their lines and compare it to data in the stem cell bank, they will come to us because we will be the ones who did the work.

“It’s a big deal for us,” he said. “This is a good contract.”

Green and Nuwaysir spoke after a press conference at University Research Park on Madison’s west side in which officials lauded the NIH selection of WiCell for the stem cell bank.

They included Gov. Jim Doyle, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, UW System President Kevin Reilly, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley, UW Board of Regents President David Walsh, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Managing Director Carl Gulbrandsen and stem cell pioneer Jamie Thomson, a UW-Madison professor.

Baldwin called the NIH decision a “tribute to Dr. Thomson and his colleagues for their groundbreaking work and a tribute to the great university that supports them.

“The scientific community clearly recognizes the significance and quality of the work going on at WiCell. This is historic research tht has the potential to change the face of medicine in the 21st century and alleviate much pain and suffering.”

Baldwin also took a swipe at efforts to restrict stem cell research by national and Wisconsin legislators.

“Sadly, in both our statehouse and in the halls of Congress, politics are trumping science, personal agendas are trumping the public good and all of us are paying the price,” she said.

“I strongly support legislation to lift restrictions and expand federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research,” she added.

“And I just as strongly condemn efforts here in the state Legislature to limit or criminalize such important research.”

Last week, the Wisconsin Senate passed legislation that will ban therapeutic cloning of stem cells. The same bill was passed by the Assembly earlier this year.

Doyle repeated his vow Monday to veto the legislation, which he predicted would stand up to an override attempt.

Doyle said having the National Stem Cell Bank would aid in the continued development of Wisconsin’s “booming” biotechnology industry.

“This is right in line with my vision for a high-end economy in Wisconsin,” he said. “Our universities’ research institutions and our biotech industry are engaged in world-leading and ground-breaking research that may one day conquer our oldest and deadliest diseases.

“I don’t know how anyone could be opposed to that,” he said.

Dr. Derek Hei, technical director of the Waisman Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility at UW-Madison, said the Wisconsin legislation would not affect the stem cell bank at this point.

Still, said Hei, the principal investigator for the stem cell bank project, the passage of state legislation worries him and other researchers.

“It’s not a good thing,” he said with a sigh. "What gets folks like Jamie and me down is that the Legislature passes bans like this when there is so much potential to help people. It’s hard to figure out."

Thomson, WiCell’s scientific director, said NIH’s funding of the stem cell bank will “greatly increase WiCell’s ability to serve the human embryonic stem cell research community as it will dramatically reduce the cost of these cell lines to investigators and encourage their more widespread use."

Gulbrandsen, president of the WiCell Board of Directors, said the university and WARF had all of the key components needed for the bank.

“Clearly having a concentration of world-class expertise in the biosciences and in particular stem cell research on this campus played a major role in NIH’s selection of WiCell.

“These are scientists who are leading the way in stem cell research in our country and are constantly advancing the potential of Dr. Thomson’s original discovery just seven years ago.”

Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park, said he hopes the establishment of the bank at WiCell will help spin out more companies and jobs in Madison.

“This is a fantastic announcement that we are the national center,” he said. “It will inspire more research and more potential for economic development and job creation.

“It will mark a point in WiCell’s history. They will take the next step in expansion and growth. It will grow even faster and that will mean more opportunities and more potential for discoveries and that will benefit all residents of Wisconsin.”