Stem-cell bank tests, stores, distributes

September 9, 2008
By David Wahlberg
Wisconsin State Journal

Some of Madison’s most precious assets are deep-frozen in vials at University Research Park.

The National Stem Cell Bank, the country’s only official repository of human embryonic stem cells, is housed at the WiCell Research Institute, a nonprofit organization affiliated with UW-Madison.

The bank was established three years ago to test, store and distribute the 21 lines, or colonies, of stem cells approved for federal funding. They include the world’s first five lines, created by campus researcher James Thomson.

The bank has collected 18 of the lines and hopes to secure two more, from the Swedish company Cellartis, by the end of the year, said Derek Hei, director of the bank.

After that, the future of the bank is uncertain, Hei said.

The four-year, $16 million contract with the National Institutes of Health to run the bank ends next fall.

Both presidential candidates have voted as senators to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cells, which could make the 300 or more lines created through private money available for government grants. The Republican party’s recently adopted platform, however, includes a ban on all embryonic stem-cell research, public or private.

That means the bank might be scaled up, shut down or continue operating but become less necessary, depending on what policies emerge.

“We think there will be changes,” Hei said. Just how the bank will be affected “is a difficult question to answer.”

Meanwhile, WiCell has established the WiCell Bank to distribute new kinds of stem cells, including those created from skin cells last year by Thomson.

Hei is preparing the Waisman Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility, a state-of-the-art clean room in the university’s Waisman Center, to grow Thomson’s original stem cells and other cells in conditions that should make them more suitable for studies in humans.

London and Singapore have established stem-cell banks, and states such as California and Massachusetts have discussed doing so, Hei said.

No matter what direction the unpredictable field takes, WiCell likely will keep playing a significant role, he said.

“There’s still going to be a need for stem-cell banks,” he said.

Scientists in the Cell Processing suite
Scientists in the Cell Processing suite at the Waisman Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility