MATC continuing effort to prepare professionals for biotech industry

Madison Area Technical College is continuing a decades-old effort to churn out workplace-ready professionals to impact the ever-changing field of biotechnology.

Also known as Madison College, MATC offers a certificate in stem cell technologies that was created for working professionals. The 32-week nighttime program was developed in 2011 to help people enter the fields of stem cells and regenerative medicine. Since then, more than 70 people have graduated. But MATC initially launched a biotech training program in 1987.

The school receives major funding from the National Science Foundation for Academic Programs’ Advanced Technology Education program. Between ATE and other government grants, the school has received about $4.5 million dollars over the last 14 years to develop workforce programs.

Its stem cell program alone has netted $1.6 million, and has a placement rate in the industry of over 90 percent, says Thomas Tubon, project director for the stem cell program at MATC and member of the board of directors for BioForward, a state biotech advocacy group.

The program is split into two semesters; the first focuses on “the core lab components of culturing these cells, managing media, and all the fundamentals of stem cells,” according to Tubon.

The second semester involves working with industry-based advanced technology like 3D culturing, CRISPR-Cas9 genomic editing, and gene modification.

“You name it — if it’s on the cutting edge of our emerging industries here in Wisconsin, we’re trying to move it into the classroom,” he said. “And we’re trying to do that with support from our industries, and our academic folks as well.”

CRISPR-Cas9 is a relatively new method. It lets scientists accurately cut and paste parts of DNA, giving them the power to determine which genes are expressed in a particular organism, and which are not. They can even introduce unique qualities from other living things.

“With the advent of CRISPR/Cas9 for gene editing, this has been fairly easy to do, relatively — to introduce mutations of interest,” said Christine L. Mummery, professor of developmental biology and chair of the department of anatomy and embryology at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

This method is already being used to mitigate genetic disorders in animals, and two clinical trials using CRISPR-Cas9 for targeted cancer therapies have been approved in China and the United States, according to a 2016 article in Nature.

Mummery spoke April 19 at the 12th annual Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium in Madison on the subject of induced pluripotent stem cells. These iPSC are derived from adult cells found in skin, blood or other parts of the body, which are reprogrammed to return to an embryonic-like state. This means they can be developed into any type of human cell, which can then be used for testing.

“The sort of low-hanging fruit, and the most exciting area in my opinion, is to do disease modeling,” Mummery said. “We can look at the underlying mechanisms of disease in humans that we’ve not been able to do previously as well with mice.”

Mummery pointed to “drug rehabilitation” as another exciting avenue to pursue.

“So basically, you find a drug which actually works really well that has nasty side effects, and what a chemist can do is cut off the bits of the molecule and check whether the side effects disappear or not,” she said.

The iPSC models can be used to test the effectiveness of these modified drugs, but also for toxicity testing and regenerative medicine, to treat things like Parkinson’s, kidney disease and diabetes.

“Parkinson’s disease looks to be very promising,” she added.

MATC was one of the first programs in the United States doing workforce training in biotech, according to Tubon. Its initial biotech program launched in 1987, and the college has been pushing to stay on the frontline of innovation ever since.

“As one of the lead programs, we’ve maintained that status moving forward with developing workforce programs for biotech, for bioinformatics, for stem cells — for whatever we can project into the future,” Tubon said. “My assumption is it’s probably going to be something in the space of tissue engineering. I think that’s a pretty safe bet, and we’ll see how far we can push that envelope.”

The next MATC effort funded by the NSF will be to “get what we’ve done here, distribute it, and start it at as many colleges as we can across the United States,” Tubon says.

About 137 targeted colleges are part of the school’s immediate network, and Tubon estimates up to 350 colleges nationwide have the capacity to start their own stem cell workforce development program.

“We’re reaching out to our first level of partners to get this going, and I’m doing that this summer and next summer to help them generate capacity, and then we’ll expand out from there,” he said.

–By Alex Moe