WiCell receives $16 million NIH grant to create national stem cell bank

University Communications

The WiCell Research Institute has been selected by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish the federal government’s first and only National Stem Cell Bank (NSCB), it was announced today at a news conference in Madison.

The NIH selected WiCell from a field of applicants in the United States to create the NSCB “to serve the research community by performing comprehensive characterization of human embryonic stem cell lines (hESC) and distributing these cell lines to investigators,” according to a technical document accompanying WiCell’s proposal to NIH in March.

Derek J. Hei, technical director of the Waisman Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility at UW-Madison and principal investigator on the NSCB project, says the NIH award of $16 million over the next four years “is another example of how researchers on this campus work collaboratively and on an interdisciplinary basis, which is how we’ve come together to bring the National Stem Cell Bank to WiCell and UW-Madison.”

James Thomson, WiCell scientific director and professor of anatomy at UW-Madison, says, “The selection of WiCell as the NSCB is a great honor and a great responsibility. Funding of the NSCB will greatly increase WiCell’s ability to serve the human ES cell research community, as it will dramatically reduce the cost of these cell lines to investigators and encourage their more widespread use.

“Although the creation of this center is very important, I hope that NIH will ultimately decide to fund additional similar centers across the United States to support this rapidly expanding field,” Thomson adds.

Thomson, the UW-Madison researcher who first isolated stem cells in 1998 and began worldwide research efforts to explore the potential of using stem cells to fight some of the most pernicious diseases and afflictions facing humanity, was joined at the news conference by U.S. Rep Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley, UW System Board of Regents President David Walsh, UW System President Kevin Reilly and several researchers who will take part in the creation and management of the NSCB.

Carl Gulbrandsen, president of the WiCell board of directors, praised the team of WiCell and UW-Madison researchers for developing the proposal ultimately selected by NIH. “Clearly having a concentration of world-class expertise in the biosciences, and in particular stem cell research on this campus, played a major role in NIH’s selection of WiCell. These are scientists who are leading the way in stem cell research in our country and are constantly advancing the potential of Dr. Thomson’s original discovery just seven years ago,” he says.

Gulbrandsen says the NSCB would provide many benefits to academic researchers, including:

A lower cost of only $500 for obtaining stem-cell lines for academic research, compared to $5,000 previously;

The continuing ability for academic researchers to patent any discovery made with these stem-cell lines, without restriction;

Comprehensive technical support; and

Availability of special training classes to teach researchers how to work with the stem-cell lines.

“Establishing the National Stem Cell Bank at WiCell responds to the needs of researchers everywhere and is a significant step forward in supporting this research,” Gulbrandsen says.

The main goal of the project is to establish a National Stem Cell Bank that will serve the research community by performing comprehensive characterization of hESC lines and distributing these cell lines to investigators. In addition, the NSCB will provide support for the research community by providing technical assistance and training in state-of-the-art methods for hESC culture and testing, according to WiCell’s technical proposal filed with the NIH.

The proposal further states: “One of the next important steps in advancing the area of hESC research is to develop standardized test methods that will allow the available cell lines to be completely characterized and compared. Detailed characterization studies will allow researchers to identify cell lines that are appropriate for specific applications. Moreover, comparative studies may provide valuable insight into the relationship between subtle genetic differences between the hESC lines and resulting differences in functional properties.

“Several groups have performed characterization studies on subsets of the hESC lines that are currently listed in the NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry. However, a comprehensive comparison of all of the lines using standardized techniques has not been undertaken. Development of standardized characterization methods and establishment of a national source of these well-characterized cell lines will greatly accelerate advancements in all areas of hESC research.”

The WiCell technical proposal also states: “This proposal outlines the plan for WiCell to serve as the NSCB by establishing a network of investigators comprised of scientists at WiCell, the UW-Madison and external collaborators. This network of investigators will provide unrivaled expertise in hESC culture methods, cell characterization methods and methods for differentiating hESC into specific cell types.

“Having the NSCB on a campus with a clinical cell-production facility directly adjacent to clinician scientists engaged in translational hESC research will also ultimately help facilitate the introduction of hESC-based therapies into the clinics. Indeed, although the current proposal calls for a single NSCB, we believe that the community would be better served if there were several regional NSCBs, each adjacent to major medical centers engaged in translational hESC research.”

Some key facts about stem cell research in Madison include:

WiCell shipped a total of 312 hES cell lines to 253 academic research groups in 21 countries.

WiCell’s introductory course on stem cell culture methods has been taken by 238 students from 96 institutions.

As of Sept. 22, there are 80 investigators studying human embryonic stem cells at WiCell and UW-Madison.

2005 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System