WisBusiness: Thomson says hopes of immediate stem cell therapies unrealistic

By Brian E. Clark


New stem cell breakthroughs hold great potential for human medicine, UW-Madison researcher Jamie Thomson said today, but any therapies coming from them may be a decade or two off.

“This will revolutionize human medicine, but mostly it is about the basic science and biology and having access to things we did not have access to before,” he said, noting that transplantation of stem cells to the central nervous system will be particularly difficult.

Using stem cells for drug screening holds much more potential, but Thomson said people who expect therapies next year will be disappointed.

“I think we underappreciate what a basic research tool stem cells will be,” said Thomson, speaking during a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon at the Sheraton Hotel in Madison.

“I’m very optimistic over time therapies will come about, but people are expecting things too fast,” he said.

“I hate to sound negative because I am fundamentally optimistic for the long term, but like gene therapy, the expectations for stem cells have been oversold,” he added.

Thomson, a UW-Madison professor, first isolated human embryonic stem cells a decade ago and most recently led a team that genetically reprogrammed human skin cells to create “human induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells” that are indistinguishable from their embryonic counterparts.

The development is significant because it means scientists do not have to destroy human embryos to create stem cells, as is required to isolate human embryonic stem cells. But Thomson said research will continue on methods of creating stem cells, as well as on adult stem cells, because all are worthy.

He also pointed out that the latest discovery would not have been possible without the embryonic breakthrough a decade ago.

“We would have failed if we had not done this work before,” he said. “Had we not done this previous work with embryos, this new work would never have happened.”

Thomson, who called UW-Madison the nation’s top stem cell university, lauded regents for not backing off on support when controversy first raged over his work a decade ago. And he said the newest breakthroughs mean more promising young scientists will be coming to the university.