UW-Madison gains two new stem cell programs

Terry Devitt, University Communications

Capitalizing on its across-the-board-strengths in stem cell research, UW-Madison will add two new stem cell programs to its portfolio.

At a meeting of stem cell researchers in Madison today (April 26), UW-Madison professor of anatomy and neurology Clive Svendsen announced the establishment of a new regenerative medicine program and an interdisciplinary postdoctoral training program that will advance stem cell research across the university.

The regenerative medicine program, which draws on faculty from the Medical School as well as the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, will focus on translating the basic science of stem cells to application through the development of cell replacement therapies.

“The ultimate promise of regenerative medicine is that many degenerative diseases of the heart, pancreas, nervous system and blood will be treatable with cell replacement therapies,” said Svendsen, a noted stem cell expert whose work is aimed at developing neural cells to treat brain and nervous system disorders.

Svendsen, along with UW-Madison Medical School Professor Timothy Kamp, a heart specialist, will direct the new program.

The program will draw on faculty from five Medical School departments: surgery, anatomy, pediatrics, pathology and radiology. Importantly, it brings the basic science of stem cells – where most work to date has been accomplished – together with clinical medicine, representing a key step toward realizing the great potential of stem cells to treat a host of debilitating cell-based diseases.

The new program will be supported to a level of $700,000 per year for the next four years. Support for the program comes from the Wisconsin Partnership Fund, the fund established to promote Wisconsin health initiatives when Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin converted to a for-profit corporation in 1999; private support through the UW Foundation; and several UW Medical School departments.

“We are committed to regenerative medicine,” says Paul DeLuca, UW Medical School associate dean for research. “We’re very enthusiastic about the possibilities and we are convinced this will have a substantive impact on the health and well being of the citizens of Wisconsin.”

The program, DeLuca notes, will be among the first of its kind in the United States and that it could presage the establishment of an institute, a center with more established structure and more certain long-term funding.

The UW-Madison Regenerative Medicine Program, according to Svendsen, will be centered on four core areas: resources for providing access to National Institutes of Health (NIH)-approved human embryonic stem cell lines, immunology and pathology services to address issues of immune rejection of transplanted cells, non-human primate resources for preclinical safety and efficacy testing, and imaging resources to track the incorporation of transplanted cells.

Kamp, who first identified and characterized the different types of heart cells that can be derived from human embryonic stem cells, says the new program will provide critical infrastructure for scientists to develop the strategies and methods that will make cell transplants possible.

“The Regenerative Medicine Program seeks to harness the remarkable advances in stem cell biology and translate them into powerful new therapies,” says Kamp. “The program will bring together the interdisciplinary expertise and infrastructure needed to overcome the shared roadblocks present for disease-specific applications.”

In addition to the new UW-Madison Regenerative Medicine Program, Svendsen also announced the establishment of an interdisciplinary postdoctoral training program for all aspects of research into the biology of stem cells.

Supported by a $1 million grant from the NIH, the program will enable three fellows per year for the next five years to receive intensive training in stem cell biology – from basic embryology to clinical trials – before embarking on research careers. The program is the first of its kind supported by NIH focusing exclusively on stem cell biology.

“We aim to train a future generation of stem cell biologists,” says Svendsen. “They will be able to participate in a number of newly-developed courses in stem cell biology and be exposed to the latest thinking in the field. It will be a tremendous asset for the university and our already established programs.”

Svendsen stressed that both new programs will operate in close conjunction with the existing UW-Madison Stem Cell Research Program, a program established in 2004 to foster communication and collaboration, and to support efforts to develop resources and opportunities for UW-Madison stem cell researchers.