Gift helping uncover the mysteries of regeneration

Medical breakthroughs and cures take decades of research, testing and clinical trials.

From a philanthropic standpoint, extraordinary patience is required of individuals who believe strongly enough in the possible outcomes to provide ongoing support. Mildred “Babe” and Marv Conney are among those whose faith in the potential miracles of science has remained unshaken for nearly 30 years.

Since the early 1980s, the Conneys’ support for basic medical research has included generous gifts to advance studies of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases at Harvard Medical Center; genetics and leukemia at the University of Chicago; and cardiovascular disease at UW–Madison. The Conneys both graduated from UW–Madison in 1950, with Mildred earning a Master’s degree in mathematics in 1951.

It was a Rotary Club presentation on human embryonic stem cell research and the work of James Thomson, Morgridge Institute director of regenerative biology, that first drew the Conneys’ attention to the potential of regenerative medicine. Guided by their own determination to “give back in exchange for our blessings,” the Conneys opted to fund the Thomson lab’s bioinformatics research involving axolotls.

“We decided to step up to the plate because this research is so vital, but so much is still unknown,” Marv Conney says.

Bioinformatics involves analyzing and interpreting vast quantities of data to identify genetically meaningful characteristics or biological interactions. Bioinformatics research in Thomson’s lab is expected to yield significant results as team members focus on the axolotl, an amphibian that is 100 times more resistant to cancer-causing agents than mammals. Axolotls also excel at regenerating limbs, including arteries, when injured.

Ron Stewart, associate director of bioinformatics, is leading the team’s study of the axolotl’s remarkable capabilities in hopes of developing new strategies for the prevention and treatment of vascular disease and cancer. In summer 2014, the Conneys received a progress report on the research from Stewart and Jeff Nelson, the postdoctoral scientist they helped support.

Nelson is studying the cluster of cells, called a blastema, that collaborates to regenerate a new axolotl limb – growing muscle, cartilage, bone, nerve tissue, blood vessels and skin, all in the right place and stage. “It’s like pulling cells back in time so they can be kids again,” he says. “How does turning back the developmental clock happen naturally in these animals?”

The answer could have great impact on human health, since humans are notoriously poor at regenerating damaged tissue. Unlocking a secret to regenerating blood vessels, for example, could mitigate the effects of cardiovascular disease, which is responsible for 70 percent of all premature death in the United States.

“Marv and Babe Conneys’ generous gift will allow us to pursue research into how the axolotl regenerates its vasculature—its arteries and blood vessels,” Stewart said. “We are extremely grateful for their support, which will help us gain new insights on growing human blood vessels in the lab to treat cardiovascular disease.”

Marv Conney said the team’s work also may lead to other insights.

“Our hope is that further study of the axolotls will reveal what makes them so resistant to cancer,” Conney said. “That quality also could lead to beneficial new treatments for this devastating and elusive disease.”