After 40 years, Waisman Center still at forefront of research on the brain

By Tom Still

The telegram from President John F. Kennedy to University of Wisconsin President Fred Harrington was both eerie and visionary. Eerie because it was delivered Nov. 20, 1963 – just two days before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas – and visionary because it seemed to anticipate the challenges confronting science in its quest to explore the human brain.

“My special good wishes go to Dr. (Harry) Waisman on the culmination of his dream and to the many young people who, through his efforts and that of the University of Wisconsin, will now be able to enter and soon conquer the vast field of mental retardation and its attendant problems,” Kennedy wrote.

The telegram was sent to mark the opening of the Joseph P. Kennedy Medical Laboratories at the UW Medical School, a precursor to what became the Waisman Center 10 years later.

Because the field of developmental disabilities is so “vast,” as the president noted a half-century ago, it has yet to be conquered in any sense of the word. Important strides have been made, however, and some of them have taken place in the four decades since the Waisman Center opened as one of the nation’s first wave of centers dedicated to study of the brain and the nervous system.

It is one of just 15 Eunice Kennedy Shriver research centers in the nation, but the Waisman Center doesn’t always get the attention received by other UW-Madison research centers. Even so, its accomplishments over time – in pure research and in dealing with patients in clinical settings – are impressive.

Over the past 40 years, Waisman scientists have discovered some of the causes of autism, disclosed the genetic roots of rare neurodegenerative diseases, manufactured cell- and gene-based pharmaceuticals to cure diseases, found ways to use medical imaging to “see” the brains of people with autism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders, discovered how infants learn language and even shown how meditation can change the brain.

Its team of stem cell scientists has discovered how those basic building blocks can be turned into different types of brain cells that are lost due to the ravages of certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, macular degeneration and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Since opening in 1973, the Waisman Center has provided clinical services to more than 160,000 children and adults, trained 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students and, more recently, operated a biomanufacturing center that helps emerging companies in the region develop tomorrow’s drugs.

“It is one of the main institutions in our community and state that contribute to scientific discovery while also providing hope for people of all ages and their families,” said Marsha Mailick, the Waisman Center’s director.

Waisman’s biomanufacturing center is an example of how research leads to economic growth. The state-of-the art cleanroom facility provides manufacturing and testing services for a broad range of pharmaceuticals and biotherapeutics in their test phases.

It’s an important link between researchers and moving cures and diagnostics to the market. Since opening in 2001, the biomanufacturing center has manufactured more than 300 clinical grade products.

Because the brain is one of the last frontiers of medical science, much work remains to be done at Waisman and similar centers. What Mailick describes as the “epidemic” of autism is a focus for some of its researchers. Some are examining how Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition found most often in boys, is a pathway to autism. Down syndrome and Alexander disease are among other major study areas.

As the Waisman Center moves toward a series of anniversary seminars and celebrations in the fall, tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin and well beyond can quietly appreciate how its work has touched and even transformed lives. As President Kennedy noted in his telegram to Harrington, the “vast field” of development disabilities remains precisely that – vast.