When UW-Madison researcher Jamie Thomson discovered human embryonic stem cells in the late 1990s, the university instantly vaulted to the forefront of this exciting new technology.
What has been almost as impressive to me is how the university has managed that success and maintained its position as a world leader.
There weren’t many other universities or labs investigating stem cells at the time. We were the pioneers. But like all exciting, good research that has a big impact, others immediately built on our work.
There was a risk that we might have fallen behind. Fortunately, UW moved wisely.
One of the first things it did was to create WiCell, an off-campus facility where we could continue our work without endangering government funding.
Researchers from departments all across campus also quickly found ways to push research forward together. From chemists to clinicians, from cell biologists to engineers, there has been a terrific collaboration here that few other universities can rival.
Part of the reason is Thomson himself. Right from the start, he was willing to collaborate with multiple investigators on campus.
My own experience shows the sort of collaborative environment he started.
I came to UW as a cardiovascular scientist, not a stem cell researcher. But his lab basically taught us everything about growing the cells and started us down this exciting road.
We pushed his stem cells to become cardiomyocytes – the cells that make up heart muscle -- so we could study them. You know when you have had success in transforming stem cells into heart cells because they actually start beating.
To put some structure around all of the coordination across campus, in 2006 we created the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.
It’s actually a virtual center – we have no building. But we have more than 90 faculty members from 30 different departments on campus. The center’s mission is to advance the science of stem cell biology and foster breakthroughs in regenerative medicine through faculty interactions, research support and education.
It’s been truly amazing to see people come together to study areas as varied as gene editing and the ethical questions surrounding stem cells. We continue to have a strong track record in major findings, and this gives us an edge when recruiting faculty and students as well.
We still need to educate the public about stem cell research and what exactly it will deliver.
People want to know, for example, when we're going to grow a bio-engineered functional heart that we can get out of the refrigerator and plop into a patient.
While that’s still a long way away, my lab is engineering heart tissue and collaborating with work on blood vessels in Thomson’s lab. All across campus, scientists at UW are doing some incredibly exciting things.