James Thomson, Director of Regenerative Biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research

Out of left field: Thomson looks at discovery and the future of science

James Thomson, the UW-Madison biologist whose stem cell discovery 20 years ago opened fascinating and promising new avenues in science, took time to discuss his thoughts on the breakthrough and what the future holds for the field of regenerative medicine.

Thomson, who now serves as director of regenerative medicine at the Morgridge Institute for Research, shares his thoughts:

Did the field of stem cell research develop these 20 years in any ways that surprised you?

There’s the field itself and the political PR component of it. The potential of these cells was not overly hyped, but the timeline was always unrealistic. People were asking, ‘When will the therapies be in the clinics?’ The fact that it will take a couple of decades to fully realize the potential of these cells is not surprising to me, but it was out of sync with the expectations.

Do you need to be fearless when pursuing science?

I really like fearless science as a goal. I think it’s aspirational. It’s on the wall saying that’s what you’re supposed to be doing, dummies. And fearless, I think, is a little wrong, because if you have no fear you’re either an idiot or you’re insane and you’ve lost reality. It’s about overcoming your fears, because that’s the hard thing. There are real things to be feared out there, but at least overcome your irrational ones when you’re trying to do something bold.

Do you think the opportunity to do fearless science has increased or diminished?

I think it goes up and down in phases. If funding is decent, you can build up enough reserves to actually do some more interesting fearless things that may not survive a grant review. I think that a lot of the super cool things that happen in science really come out of left field from a few individuals who are really interested in something and they pursue it just for their own personal reasons. When the funding gets really tight, then some of the really big things don’t happen.

What do we need to do to encourage left-field thinking?

With some of these scientific areas, you need the luxury of time. If you’re working on something hard, you need years, or you simply don’t get there. But science careers have this really tight timeline, it’s one time fits all. From the day I arrived at Wisconsin to the date I published on human embryonic stem cells, it was over seven years. Had I been at a normal tenure-track position, I would not have gotten tenure. I had the luxury of time because I was head of pathology at the primate center, so I could do my own quirky interests. For tenure, I would have figured out all the little boxes I had to check off. And one of those boxes would not have been doing human embryonic stem cells.

How do we get around this system?

I’d like to see good investment in young people at the beginning of their career. It’s still a hard process to select which people to invest in. How do you predict that success ahead of time? Nonetheless, I think we should try. If we can find ways to allow young people who are still creative, access to resources where they can try something bold, try to knock it out of the park, and when they fail they still have some kind of soft landing afterwards, I think that will be tremendously useful.

Are there other obstacles to the future of science?

I think it goes in waves and we’re at a stressful time now because of funding and there’s too many bodies competing for too little funds. But I’m actually optimistic about the future being very bright. I think we’re at an extraordinary time in the history of science, better than any other period. The fact that we have a social structure that does support science at a decent level is something to be thankful for. Computers are getting better and faster. Artificial intelligence is getting better at a fairly fast rate and that is going to change human societies in a way we don’t understand. It’s an exciting time to be in science, just a lot of cool things you can do.

What next steps are you most excited about?

In the therapeutic range, there are two areas that are either in clinical trials or about to start, so they’re the most exciting right now. One is the attempts to treat macular degeneration. It’s still highly risky but it’s very rational and they already have an approach to doing it and it could actually work. The other ones are the people trying to do Parkinson’s because that’s come along far enough. Again, it’s highly risky but it’s got a shot to work and the cells are available.

Where do you see the field of regenerative medicine heading?

This is an important field that will continue to thrive and grow. Which are going to be the winners and the losers? I don’t know. Take Parkinson’s: Boy, I hope that one works but it could fail. So, there might be something entirely out of left field we’re not anticipating that is the first really big success. I don’t have a crystal ball about the specific successes, but I’m confident the field is going to improve.

What advice would you give to a young scientist entering bio-medicine right now?

It’s a rough world out there and you shouldn’t do it unless you’re super passionate about it because if you’re not, it’s not the greatest job in the world. But if you are, it’s the greatest job in the world.

Stem Cells at 20

Twenty years ago, scientist James Thomson rocked the scientific world by isolating human embryonic stem cells — the building blocks of human life.

Today, research is booming worldwide, including hundreds of scientists at UW-Madison and the Morgridge Institute.

Read more about the remarkable Wisconsin stem cell story in excerpts from a special section created in partnership with the Wisconsin State Journal.

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