By Brian E. Clark
Twenty years after UW-Madison scientist Jamie Thomson began work to isolate human embryonic stems, research has advanced so far that the field is now poised to boom and create Wisconsin companies that could rival Epic, the Verona-based electronic healthcare records company with more than 9,000 employees.
That was the optimistic forecast by three panelists who spoke Tuesday at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon in Madison.
There have been “remarkable” breakthroughs coming out of UW labs that include the creation of heart muscle, nerve, pancreas, retinal and other cells, said William Murphy, a biomedical engineering professor and co-director of the university’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.
He was joined on the panel by Dr. David Gamm, an associate professor at the McPherson Eye Research Institute and Carter Cliff, founder of D1ASP0RA. Cliff was also headed business development at Cellular Dynamics International, a major manufacturer of human-induced pluripotent stem cell products. CDI, founded by Thomson, was sold last year to Fujifilm Holdings for $307 million.
Murphy called the university “ground zero” for its groundbreaking work in regenerative medicine. Over the past five years, he said the research focus has shifted to creating human organs and tissues outside the body using induced pluripotent stem cells – which can be made from adult tissue rather than human embryos – for testing drugs and other treatments.
He said hundreds of doctors, researchers and bioengineers now work at the university in this area. Each year, he said they publish upwards of 500 research articles and have numerous patents.
“Wisconsin has rightly been described as the birthplace of regenerative medicine and a ‘Mecca’ of stem cell research,” he said. “We are now at a critical point because a lot of the scientific discoveries have been quite exciting and led to the need for engineering. We have to figure out now how to generate these kinds of cells as tools and it has to be efficient.”
If that can be done, he said, they can be used in clinical trials and applications, which if successful, could be translated into industry, expand existing startups and create other companies that might mean tens of thousands of new jobs for the Badger State.
“Locally, there is a real critical mass in this area,” he said. “There are 50 Wisconsin companies in the regenerative medicine space with around 3,600 employees. So we already are a significant hub.
“But we are only scratching the surface of what’s possible at the university and for the Madison area. Regenerative medicine sits at the crux of a lot of large and rapidly growing markets like science tools, drug discovery, device design and tissue engineering. And this is projected to be about a $68 billion market by 2020 with a rapid growth rate.”
Cliff, who established CDI’s cell therapy pipeline, said UW-Madison has “the best (stem cell) engineering teams in the world and the best scientists, and in CDI the most capable manufacturing, so the opportunities are enormous.
“Our situation is analagous to the position East and West Coast biotechs like Amgen and Genentech were in many years ago when they were migrating from traditional drug discovery into biologics. The potential of cell therapy as a regenerative medicine is even bigger.”
Gamm, who heads a team at the McPherson Eye Reseach Institute that is working to build retinas from stem cells, said UW-Madison is ahead of other universities because of the collaborative nature of its research.
“California may have a big mound of honey (from a $3 billion regenerative medicine initiative passed by voters in 2004), but it can’t duplicate what Wisconsin has. The collaborative nature of what we do at this university is different. We are very much in the forefront.”
One of the roadblocks for growth, Murphy said, is the need for funding for early stage human clinical trials for promising therapies, which can cost $15 million to $20 million a pop.
“That’s really been a frustrating challenge,” he said. “But the way we can compete is to engage most strongly with industry and extending the partnership model. There is money available, it’s just not in the public sector.”
Murphy said the state needs “more collisions between scientist who are doing the work and entrepreneurs who are interested in pushing it outside the university.
“Right now that’s happening organically,” he said. “If there were a formalized effort to do this and funding around it and it helped break down barriers, it would be helpful. If we want to add value to a technology for industry, you need an intervening effort like a startup company.”
In the near future, Cliff predicted, Wisconsin has the potential to start multi-billion-dollar companies like Genentech in Wisconsin.
“What’s needed is to rapidly prototype… but I’m hard pressed to think of an another industry that would be better to invest in,” he said.