By Brian E. Clark
A top UW-Madison researcher who has worked for the Pfizer drug
company said Tuesday that firms using stem cells to test and create new
drugs could generate more than $3.6 billion in revenues by 2020.
And Wisconsin could be home to new companies doing doing that work,
thanks to a wealth of scientific experts here, said Dr. Gabriela Cezar,
who spoke at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon.
But Cezar said efforts by Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled
Legislature to restrict stem cell studies are holding back investment
in this state.
And Cezar, a native of Brazil who earned her doctorate here, said
she would waste little time in moving to California if legislation
criminalizing such research were signed into law by a future governor.
“I can’t speak for my fellow scientists, but I would leave,” said
Cezar, who was recruited by California but chose to return to
UW-Madison because it meant the chance to work with scientists like
Jamie Thomson, who first isolated and reproduced human embryonic stem
Fortunately, she said, Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed legislation
restricting stem cell studies on Nov. 3. And she cited a national Harris poll
that said 73 percent of Americans back stem cell research.
Cezar said Doyle’s stand was one of the reasons she returned to her
alma mater after working in industry.
“But just today I got a call from a former colleague asking me
about something going on here politically with stem cells,” she said.
“It makes you nervous,” she said.
Politics aside, Cezar said she hopes her work can help marry
scientific progress to business here in Wisconsin.
“There are opportunities because there are unmet needs,” she said.
“It is our goal at the university to strengthen Wisconsin’s leadership
in this area and to bring investment to this state.”
She said Wisconsin has the country’s strongest stem cell
intellectual property portfolio – managed by the Wisconsin Alumni
Research Foundation. And she said state residents should be proud that
the National Institutes of Health recently chose UW-Madison for its
stem cell bank.
As part of her discussion, Cezar walked her attentive audience
through the latest research developments in her field around the globe.
She recently spoke at conferences on both coasts of the United States
and in Europe.
She said Wisconsin faces stiff competition from California because
of the passage of Prop. 71, which will pump $3 billion into that
state’s stem cell studies over the next decade.
Though that funding is tied up by two lawsuits, she said that
state’s positive attitude about research has stimulated the business
climate for companies that might work with stem cells.
Cezar said companies that use stem cells to study the potential
toxicity of new drugs – such as Madison’s Cellular Dynamics
International – show great promise. That company was started last year
by Thomson and UW-Madison cardiologists Craig January and Tim Kamp and
is based at the University Research Park on Madison’s West Side. (Read
a recent WisBusiness story about the company: Reluctant
Businessman Helps Lead First Wisconsin Stem Cell Business)
Cezar said adult stem cells also have promise for research, though
their use is limited because they do not have the same “plasticity” as
embryonic stem cells.
She said she is particularly hopeful that biomedical studies using
stem cells will help determine the cause of diseases like cancer and
birth defects such as spina bifida, an ailment that affects spinal
Breakthroughs in stem cells for regenerative medicine are more
long-term, though she said animal models have show success in fighting
strokes and diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Cezar said big pharma companies such as Eli Lilly, Merck, Novartis,
Pfizer and GE Healthcare are all watching developments with stem cells
closely because of the potential to make drugs “better, faster and
Cezar also said it is important for the public to understand that
she and her colleagues at UW-Madison do not take the controversies
surrounding their work lightly.
“We believe in transparency and ethics,” she said, noting that a
top South Korean stem cell scientist had “crossed the line” by using
human eggs from junior staff and paying for eggs.
“That created an enormous conflict of interest,” she said. “We
would not do that here.”