UW-Madison launches stem cell research program

April 16, 2004 By Terry Devitt

To gather a burgeoning number of stem cell researchers into a cohesive community and leverage new resources, UW–Madison has established the new Wisconsin Stem Cell Research Program.

Developed under the auspices of the Graduate School, the initiative is intended to foster campuswide communication and collaboration, and support efforts to develop resources and opportunities for as many as 150 faculty, staff, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers now using stem cells in their research.

“The intent is to create an active, dynamic program that helps us develop an academic environment that is synergistic and opportunistic, helping keep Wisconsin at the forefront of the field,” says R. Timothy Mulcahy, associate vice chancellor for research policy and Graduate School associate dean for the biological sciences.

Nationally, a number of universities have staked out claims in the stem cell field, so competition for research dollars, students and the best faculty is becoming more acute. But Wisconsin, Mulcahy notes, enjoys significant advantages, including a critical mass of stem cell biologists with as many as 30 different research groups and significant physical infrastructure at the Waisman Center, the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Biotechnology Center, and affiliated programs at the private WiCell Research Institute. Moreover, through WiCell, Wisconsin possesses five of the National Institutes of Health-approved cell lines, which can be used in labs supported by federal research dollars.

“We have a lead in this promising field,” Mulcahy says. “We want to be sure that we’re doing what we can to stay ahead of the game.”

To do that, providing opportunities for faculty and staff to collaborate, and for students to gain full advantage of the stem cell research and educational opportunities that exist, are critical, says Barbara Lewis, manager of the new program. First orders of business, Lewis says, include setting up communications nodes such as a Web site, a journal club and an annual retreat for researchers.

The first retreat, held April 1, included a dozen presentations by Wisconsin faculty and staff, as well as a poster session and social opportunities to foster discussion among researchers in disciplines as diverse as anatomy, reproductive physiology, biological engineering, surgery and neurology. The daylong event attracted 140 people.

Lewis likened the new initiative to something akin to what goes on in a lab dish populated with stem cells: “Embryonic stem cells don’t like to be alone. They’re much happier in a group. It’s the same with people in a research environment.”

Fund raising will be an important activity, Lewis notes. Already, a group of faculty is pulling together a training grant to help attract and support the best postdoctoral researchers in the field. Faculty will also be able to use the resources to help develop courses relevant to stem cell science.

Lewis emphasizes, too, that the program is not just a focus of embryonic stem cell research. Faculty working with fetal and adult cells are a big emphasis, she says.

“To me, the important thing is people will get to know who’s working on what,” she says. “The program is a mechanism through which we can keep track of what everyone is doing and, of course, we want to keep the excitement and the momentum of stem cell research going.”