Twenty years ago this month, UW-Madison researcher James Thomson announced he had successfully grown human embryonic stem cells outside the body. Since then, Madison and Wisconsin have enjoyed international renown for research and innovation, but that could falter without support.
The excitement after Thomson’s discovery permeated news accounts of the time. With this breakthrough, the world was on the cusp of transformative health-care treatments. Custom-grown body parts were right around the corner. The State Journal’s front page called it “the basis for medicine of the future.”
Dr. David Gamm is one of about 100 faculty researchers using stem cells to model diseases, screen drugs or develop cell therapies at UW-Madison, where James Thomson gained international attention 20 years ago this month by announcing the world’s first isolation of human embryonic stem cells.
The full expectations of 1998 remain elusive, but progress continues. New discoveries build incrementally on Thomson’s pioneering work. That’s how science usually works. Slow advances follow scientific breakthroughs. Researchers test a new theorem or technique, they figure out applications, and they rigorously study effects.
If the history of science is one of revolutions, as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn concluded a half-century ago, during the decades between those revolutions, a slow burn of research and gradual advancement takes place. The same happens between major, if not revolutionary, discoveries such as Thomson’s stem cell methods.
And with it all, a new economy grows in our region. Around Madison and UW-Madison, Thomson’s work has contributed to a cottage industry centered on research, startups and technology innovators.
State Journal medical reporter David Wahlberg shared some of that research with readers earlier this month. His story explored work at UW-Madison to grow light-sensitive tissue that can be used to help people with damaged eyes and blindness. It’s not ready for widespread use yet, but the advances so far offer hope to many people whose vision is failing.
Some of the old hangups about stem cells are finally fading. Government has kept a wary eye on stem cells because early research involved embryos. Thomson’s crucial discovery was that regular skin or blood cells could be reprogrammed to an embryonic state.
UW-Madison ranks sixth among U.S. universities for research and development spending. But even that belies hit-or-miss support. Indeed, the federal government has mostly been a reliable funder, but local and state investment dropped 11.3 percent in the most recent accounting of R&D spending.
Agriculture and manufacturing have historically driven the region’s economy, but in recent years the scales have tilted ever more toward high-tech, biotech and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
The first stem cell therapy developed at UW-Madison to enter a clinical trial was found to be safe and beneficial to patients, according to the company overseeing the treatment.
That reputation attracts innovators who want to build off the synergy of the region. There’s nothing like smart people doing exciting work to draw in even more smart people with novel ideas, from giants such as the medical record-keeping company Epic to indie game designers.
Madison isn’t Silicon Valley. If the region and all of Wisconsin wishes to enjoy a diverse, 21st century economy, local, state and national leaders must nurture it. Show the world that the state not only is open for business but also actively supports it financially and with fair regulation.