University of Wisconsin, Madison (Stem Cell)

THE UNIVERSITY OF Wisconsin, Madison, is the flagship institution in the public University of Wisconsin (UW) system, which includes 13 universities across the state of Wisconsin. UW-Madison has developed into a leading intellectual center since its founding in 1848. It boasts a strong undergraduate academic program, divided into 20 colleges and schools, and is also internationally known for its graduate programs in business, education, engineering, letters and sciences, and agriculture, as well as its professional schools in medicine, law, environmental studies, veterinary medicine, journalism, urban and regional planning, library science, and pharmacy. UW-Madison has also invested heavily in biomedical research, becoming a prominent stem cell research hub. The centerpiece—the UW Health University Hospital—is located on campus and partners in many significant biomedical research ventures undertaken at UW-Madison.


The University of Wisconsin at Madison was founded as one of the first public universities in the United States. Its establishment was tied directly to the state constitution, ratified in 1848, which called for the establishment of a public university as part of the Wisconsin vision. In 1904, the UW system dedicated itself to a principle known as the “Wisconsin Idea” under the leadership of UW President Charles Van Hise. This principle commits the university to providing access to exemplary higher-level learning to all Wisconsin residents and to seek to improve the quality of life for all in Wisconsin and beyond. The mission of the University of Wisconsin is to provide “a learning environment in which faculty, staff and students can discover, examine critically, preserve and transmit the knowledge, wisdom and values that will help insure the survival of this and future generations and improve the quality of life for all.” Since the university’s first class of 17 students in 1849, the institution has grown to an enrollment of nearly 40,000 students drawn from every U.S. state and many foreign nations. The university has enjoyed increasing recognition as one of the preeminent U.S. public institutions of learning.

UW-Madison is also noted for its long tradition of activism and support of progressive policies.

The university was a hotbed of political protest from 1966 to 1970 as a result of ongoing tensions stemming from the Vietnam War. Numerous protests and sit-ins were held by students and faculty, who were angered by the university’s
partnerships with Dow Chemical Company, a manufacturer of napalm, which was widely used during the Vietnam War. These protests culminated with the bombing of a campus research building, Sterling Hall, which housed the physics
department and the Army Mathematics Research Center (the target of the bombing).The university’s tradition as a politically active campus continues today. UW-Madison is widely viewed as a pioneer and strong supporter of stem
cell research, with students, faculty, and researchers providing support for ongoing research efforts
and lobbying for the requisite political changes in the regulation and control of stem cell research.

Pioneering Stem Cell Research

UW-Madison is a pioneering leader in stem cell research, beginning with the isolation and culture of primate embryonic stem cells in 1995 by Dr. James Thomson. In 1998, Thomson’s group announced another significant breakthrough—the
isolation of human embryonic stem cells—further raising the profile of UW-Madison in the emerging field of stem cell biology. Human stem cells were typically grown in media over a layer of feeder cells comprising mouse embryonic fibroblasts. This feeder layer posed a serious obstacle to the future development of stem cell therapies for human use,
as mouse embryonic fibroblasts would contaminate cultured human embryonic stem cells with mouse proteins. In 2006, the Thomson lab was the first to develop a solution to this problem: TesR media, containing components derived solely from human proteins, enabled successful feeder-cell-independent culturing of human stem cells. Development of this
method helped fuel future research to unlock the scientific and medical benefits in the area of human embryonic stem cells. The WiCell Research Institute and National Stem Cell Bank are based at UWMadison and play leadership roles in education and training for stem cell research across the world.

The University of Wisconsin announced in 2001 that researchers had successfully induced differentiation of human embryonic stem cells to become primitive blood cells and, later, mature hematopoietic cells (including red and white blood cells and platelets). Also in 2001, UW-Madison research directed by Dr. Su-Chun Zhang successfully induced
the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells into precursor neural cells, which were successfully xenografted into mice. The successful induction of the differentiation program and formation of specific tissue types realized a fundamental step in stem cell research and significantly advanced progress in unlocking the therapeutic potential of stem cells. In 2003, Thomson’s laboratory also developed a fundamental method of manipulating stem cell DNA
through a technique known as homologous recombination,enabling scientists to study stem cell gene function in greater depth.

Much of the early research done at UW-Madison laid the foundation in developing the stem cell research field. Building on the techniques developed in the laboratories of Thomson and Zhang, other scientists at UW-Madison have made further progress. An increasing emphasis is placed on the potential applications of stem cell therapies to human diseases. John has been working on neural stem cells with the goal of neuroregeneration,to develop therapies for conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. In
August 2007, Dr. Masatoshi Suzuki of the UW-Madison’s Waisman Center reported that implantation of stem cells engineered to secrete glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF, an agent known to protect neurons from degeneration) into the spinal cords of rats suffering from ALS were able to yield almost 100 percent protection of the
motor neurons from degeneration.

However, the rats were unable to regain muscle function, as connections between motor neurons and muscles were not protected. Future research will focus on extending the effects of GDNF and developing methods using stem cells to protect against neurodegeneration and possibly restore neurological function.

The university has also worked to expand stem cell research across a broad range of disciplines, with it taking place in veterinary medicine and research as well as agricultural applications.

Future Research

As the field and possible applications of stem cell biology continue to expand, UW-Madison has also expanded its focus on and involvement in translational research. The laboratories of Dr. Tim Kamp in the Department of Cardiology, Dr. John Kuo in the Department of Neurological Surgery, and Dr. Caroline Alexander at the McArdle Center for Cancer Research are examples of this expanded focus. Kamp’s group is motivated toward developing possible stem cell therapies for heart disease,which is the number one killer in the United States. Kuo’s group is currently focused on brain cancer stem cell molecular biology, with a view toward developing novel therapies for difficult-totreat,deadly brain tumors. Dr. Caroline Alexanderworks on advancing breast cancer stem cell biology to expand understanding of a major disease afflicting
women. The university continues to expand research programs in the fields of regenerative medicine and other medical fields, as well as commercial,agricultural, and veterinary applications.The Wisconsin Idea has also been implemented in its modern incarnation toward advancing stem cell–based therapies. Because of its pioneering and very active research community, UW-Madison is currently designated by the National Institutes of Health one of three exploratory centers for human embryonic stem cell research in the United States. The UW-based National Stem Cell Bank maintains and distributes the 21 human embryonic stem cell lines and subclones that are available for federally funded research in the United States.

Biotechnology and Stem Cells

The university and the state of Wisconsin have been working closely with biotechnology companies and private industry in an effort to support and further develop ongoing stem cell research. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) has been a strong asset in developing spin-off stem cell–based  businesses, protecting university research by patents, and closely cooperating with private industry to cultivate a stem cell culture and biotechnology niche within Wisconsin. This effort is viewed as critical by the university and by many Wisconsin residents, who fear that increased research spending in states such as California may diminish the important role that the University of Wisconsin has played in leading the stem cell field.

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