At 30, Waisman Center looks to new frontiers

Wisconsin Week

During the past three decades, our understanding of human development – from the womb to old age – has grown in astounding ways. We know more about the causes and consequences of developmental disability and mental retardation than we might have imagined 40 years ago when President John F. Kennedy, two days before his assassination, wired his congratulations to Professor Harry Waisman at the UW Medical School.

In his communication, Kennedy was noting the establishment of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Laboratories, the precursor to the Waisman Center at UW-Madison.

A decade later, the Waisman Center was officially established and named for the pioneering scientist and clinician whose work to establish mandatory PKU testing for newborns has helped to prevent the onset of a genetic form of mental retardation in tens of thousands of people.

“When the Waisman Center opened 30 years ago, the research and clinical services focused on mental retardation and early childhood development,” says Marsha M. Seltzer, who was appointed director a year ago following the retirement of Terrence R. Dolan, who had held the position for 20 years. “This is still our core mission, although today we have a much broader focus.”

Seltzer’s research, for example, concerns the impact of developmental disabilities on the family throughout life. “We also have expanded our mission to include diseases like Parkinson’s and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) – diseases that generally manifest themselves when people are older,” says Seltzer, who is also a UW-Madison professor of social work.

Indeed, today the center is internationally known for its research in many areas: the genetic basis of developmental disabilities and neurodegenerative diseases; the development of the nervous system; early childhood cognitive, language, behavioral and social development; gene therapy; and stem cell research.

In 60 laboratories, faculty from 25 university departments collaborate in an effort to peel back the mysteries of human development, developmental disability and neurodegenerative diseases.

The center, Seltzer notes, is also internationally known for its clinical services for individuals and their families, and as a center for training and educating current and future researchers and practitioners. The center’s clinics and support programs provide services for more than 2,500 people each year.

“We’re committed to research, clinical service, and training the next generation of scientists and practitioners,” says Seltzer. “We’re also committed to changing public policy. Harry Waisman did all of those things.”

Because of its interdisciplinary nature and the breadth of its programs, Seltzer points out, “the center has generated a wealth of knowledge about human development during the past 30 years – from before birth and throughout the life span. And we are discovering new interventions and treatments of the disabilities and disorders that we study.”

In 2001, the center opened new research and child development facilities housing state-of-the art laboratory space for gene therapy and stem cell research; a clinical biomanufacturing facility; the Waisman Early Childhood Program, a preschool for 85 children, one-third of whom have disabilities; and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. In the brief time since opening, the Keck Lab has become world famous as a center for the study of the brain, human emotions and complex disorders such as autism.

Seltzer says that while the mission of the Waisman Center has evolved over time, there has been one important constant: The center remains a focal point of hope for people with many types of disability and their families.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when we don’t get calls from somewhere in the world from people seeking help,” says Seltzer. “Over the next 30 years, we will maintain our commitment to discovering new causes of developmental disabilities and neurodegenerative diseases, new ways to prevent and treat these disorders, and new ways to support affected individuals and their families.”


Selected Waisman Center milestones

1965 UW-Madison selected as one of the first two sites in the United States for a multidisciplinary center devoted to the study of human development and mental retardation.

1970 Began providing interdisciplinary training and clinical services in temporary space prior to the completion of the Waisman Center.

1973 Waisman Center dedicated and named for pioneering biochemist and pediatrician Harry Waisman.

1979 Opening of the Waisman Early Childhood Program, a model school for children with diverse developmental needs.

1985 Creation of SALT (Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts), a new method for quickly analyzing speech and language.

1989 Discovery of a highly successful strategy for gene therapy in conditions such as muscular dystrophy.

1996 Opening of the Family Village, an award-winning Internet site and one of the first resources on the World Wide Web designed for families and people affected by disability.

1997 Provided new evidence that, in individuals with Down syndrome, language skills once thought to plateau in childhood continue to develop into adulthood.

2001 Discovery of the gene responsible for Alexander disease. Completion of a $25 million addition, including a six-story research tower and expansion of early intervention and early childhood programs.

2003 Development of new stem cell approaches for treating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and ALS.

Click here to view the entire list of Waisman Milestones.