By Brian E. Clark
UW-Madison scientist and entrepreneur James Thomson believes it may be decades before stem cells produce treatments that cure diabetes, Parkinsons disease or help the paralyzed walk again.
But these basic building blocks of life are already changing how research is conducted in thousands of labs around the globe and may soon lead to the creation of new medical products, Thomson said during a Madison Magazine Best of Madison Business luncheon at the Monona Terrace Convention Center.
In addition to Thomson, who was the first to isolate and grow stem cells from human embryos in 1998, the ceremony honored Rod Nilsestuen, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for his work to promote the state’s $51 billion dollar farm and forest products industries. He was particularly lauded for his efforts on behalf of organic dairies and bio-fuels.
Donna Sollenberger, CEO of UW Hospitals and Clinics, was honored along with Dave Anderson, president and COO of American Family Insurance, for their work on the $78 million American Family Children’s Hospital that will open this summer.
Last but not least was Larry Johnson, who manages Madison farmer’s market, which has become synonymous with a Saturday visit to the capital city from spring through fall.
Thomson, who remains one of the world’s leading stem cell researchers, said that while the field holds great promise, there is more than a little “irrational exuberance” surrounding stem cells.
“We don’t know how long it will take or exactly where it’s going,” he said. “This is not easy. But as a research tool, the use of stem cells is already pervasive. It is profoundly changing what we do.”
Thomson also defended his work against critics who say it is immoral to destroy human embryonic stem cells for research. He said he does not believe it is wrong to use frozen embryos that would be discarded as a byproduct of invitro fertilization.
“To me it is simple,” he said, noting that a significant number of the 400,000 frozen embryos now in storage will be discarded. “It is better to use them on research to improve and save lives than to throw them away.”
Thomson also said UW-Madison is uniquely positioned to benefit and create many new businesses coming from the school’s research labs. He said collaboration is part of the culture at the university and there are many talented scientists devoting their lives to research.
“It’s not all about me,” he said modestly. “There are many, many others.”
Thomson, whose two businesses are called Stem Cell Products and Cellular Dynamics International, said Madison has an entrepreneurial spirit that will help turn science into companies and jobs.
Stem cell Products plans to produce blood platelets and red blood cells that could one day be used to treat wounded soldiers and others who need blood transfusions. Cellular Dynamics hopes to commercialize a technique in which stem cells are grown into adult human heart cells. The products would allow researchers to test potential drugs using live heart cells for the first time.
“The academic world drives the innovation process,” he said. “But we aren’t very good at making stuff that is useful to people. That is where commerce comes in.”