Stem cell pioneer James Thomson to steer regenerative medicine at MIR

The Morgridge Institute for Research, the private, not-for-profit side of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, is announcing the appointment of world-renowned stem cell pioneer and researcher James Thomson as the first member of its multidisciplinary scientific leadership team.

Thomson has accepted the position of director of regenerative biology and will become a principal scientist at the new institute. A professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, Thomson will retain his faculty appointment at the university.

This announcement signals the Morgridge Institute’s commitment to recruiting world-class scientific talent to guide its interdisciplinary focus on facilitating research collaborations aimed at improving human health. The Morgridge Institute is continuing its search for an executive director to head the overall organization, and has eventual plans to hire additional scientific directors to lead efforts that will include computational biology and bioengineering.

Though the new facility that will house the twin Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery — the private Morgridge Institute for Research (MIR) and the public Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) — will not open until fall 2010, the work of the Morgridge Institute will begin in the near future in leased interim space. It is a primary goal of the twin institutes to collaborate and complement each other by leveraging the best of a great public university with the flexibility and resources of a world-class private research institute.

The announcement of Thomson’s appointment will be made during a UW–Madison campus event this evening celebrating the famed researcher’s 2007 breakthrough discovery of creating human-induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. John Morgridge, who, along with his wife, Tashia, donated $50 million to the institutes; and Carl Gulbrandsen, chair of the Morgridge Institute for Research’s Board of Trustees and managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF); will make the announcement during an hour-long program recognizing Thomson’s work.

During the event, the role of the university’s recently created Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, which connects the more than 40 stem cell researchers working on the UW–Madison campus, will be highlighted. In addition, Gulbrandsen and Dean Robert Golden of the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health will discuss plans for significant collaboration between the Morgridge Institute and the university’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

“We are extremely pleased and excited about Dr. Thomson’s decision to join the Morgridge Institute and help establish the agenda for the breakthrough research the institute will conduct in regenerative biology, as well as in other areas,” states Gulbrandsen. “As the unequivocal leader in this seminal field, Dr. Thomson’s commitment and contributions will be crucial to establishing our new institute as a world-class research organization.”

As early as the fall of 2010, Thomson’s lab will move across the street from its current space in the university’s Genetics and Biotechnology Center to the new Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, now under construction on the 1300 block of University Avenue. Thomson’s move to the Morgridge Institute will allow him to augment his current research staff and to invite visiting researchers from around the world to work with him for extended periods, thereby significantly advancing the capabilities of his research efforts.

Gulbrandsen notes that the focus of the Morgridge Institute is to explore the intersection of biology, engineering, and information technology, using tools such as nanotechnology and computational science. “The ability to bring researchers from these various disciplines together under the same roof to work shoulder-to-shoulder on common problems is a cornerstone of the promise of the Morgridge Institute, and the driving force behind Dr. Thomson’s decision to make this move,” he explains.

“The opportunities at the Morgridge Institute come at a remarkable time for the course of my research, as well as for the advancement of science,” states Thomson. “Biologists now have access to instrumentation that creates an unprecedented depth of data, and we’re not, as a group, trained to deal with it. Research synergies among the sciences are more important to the study of human biology now than at any other point in history.

“People are building cutting-edge instruments that can look deeper and deeper into biological processes,” notes Thomson. “It is tremendously exciting for biologists to work right next to the mathematicians and computational biologists who can actually help analyze and understand the data.”

Thomson became the first person in the world to isolate human embryonic stem (ES) cells and maintain them indefinitely in culture, a discovery that the journal Science named the Breakthrough of the Year in 1998 and which the same journal later heralded as one of the major milestones in the history of science.

His discovery ushered in a new era of human biological research, providing scientists with “blank slate” cells capable of becoming any of the more than 200 specialized cells in the body and offering researchers a rare view into the earliest stages of human development. While cell transplantation therapies have yet to be developed, human embryonic stem cells have become pervasive and powerful research tools that provide scientists accurate models of human disease and a new way to test drugs more effectively in living organisms.

Almost a decade after his initial discovery, Thomson made headlines around the world again, when the research team he leads at the UW–Madison succeeded in turning skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. The new cells, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, hold much of the promise of embryonic stem cells, but are not derived from embryos, thus potentially ending much of the ethical and political controversy that has surrounded their use. Scientists believe the iPS cells may one day replace the use of human ES cells as both research tools and therapeutic agents.

In advance of the Morgridge Institute’s physical opening, Gulbrandsen notes that the institute has committed more than $750,000 for the current fiscal year to sponsor programming that includes faculty symposia focusing on the interface of mathematics and biology, the establishment of new videoconferencing services among key medical and science buildings on campus, and a wide range of fellowships to support the campus’ Computation and Informatics in Biology and Medicine graduate and postdoctoral training program.

The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery will be located in a new, state-of-the-art 300,000 square-foot facility on the UW–Madison campus bordered by University Avenue, Campus Drive, Charter Street and Randall Avenue. The building plans include four stories above ground and one below and have been designed to meet requirements for green building practices certification. In addition to four floors of research offices and flexible “wet,” “dry,” and “damp” laboratories, the main floor atrium is designed as a vibrant and attractive public gathering space offering symposia and meeting areas, educational events and activities, as well as food, coffee, and retail services that include a soda fountain.

The Morgridge Institute for Research is the private, not-for-profit part of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, a unique public-private initiative designed under one roof to facilitate interdisciplinary research and breakthrough discoveries to improve human health. Along with its public twin, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, the Morgridge Institute will open in 2010 in a new facility on the campus of the UW–Madison, consistently ranked as one of the best-funded research universities in the world.

The $150 million facility for the institutes is made possible through a partnership that includes the State of Wisconsin, donors John and Tashia Morgridge, and WARF. Research at the Morgridge Institute will focus on facilitating collaborations across the fields of biology, computer science and bioengineering to advance medical discoveries.