Thomson honored for stem cell research legacy

Wisconsin biotechnology advocacy organization BioForward honored two giants in state biomedical innovation — stem cell research pioneer James Thomson and entrepreneur Ralph Kauten — for their scientific and business achievement during its annual summit September 27 in Madison.

Thomson received BioForward’s second annual research achievement award, named after its first recipient, UW–Madison biochemist and vitamin research pioneer Hector De Luca. Thomson serves as director of regenerative biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research and as UW–Madison professor of cell and regenerative biology. In 2007, his lab reported (contemporaneously with Dr. Shinya Yamanaka) the first isolation of human induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells. These iPS cells have the basic properties of human embryonic stem cells but are derived from somatic cells rather than human embryos. Thomson also founded Cellular Dynamics, a Madison-based stem cell biomanufacturing firm acquired by FUJIFILM in March 2015.

In 1998, Thomson was the first scientist in the world to isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells, and both discoveries have helped redefine biomedical research.

“The work made available one of the most important research tools of our generation and opened the door to an exciting new field of research leading to a better understanding of human development, new and safer ways to develop and test pharmaceuticals and screen toxins,” says Carl Gulbrandsen, emeritus managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, who introduced Thomson at the event. “His discovery also promised a new way to treat otherwise untreatable diseases, a field we refer to now as regenerative medicine.”

At the Morgridge Institute, Thomson’s innovative research continues. For example: Diseases of blood vessels kill more people worldwide than any other cause, and the Thomson team is working on ways to use stem cells to develop functional arteries to repair damaged tissue. The Thomson lab also is looking into the mysteries of developmental clocks — why it takes 9 months for humans to develop, compared to 21 days for a mouse.

“These are fundamental questions in biology that will take many years to unravel, but have the potential to transform human health,” Gulbrandsen says.

Ralph Kauten’s involvement in biotechnology started in 1979 at Promega Corporation, followed by playing vital roles in PanVera Corporation, Mirus Bio Corporation, Quintessence Biosciences, Inc. and he currently serves as the CEO of Lucigen Corporation.

BioForward’s annual Summit featured panel discussions around the convergence of once segregated industries in healthcare, the Cancer Moonshot 2020 initiative and what state companies are doing to fight cancer, as well as Wisconsin-based businesses showcasing how they are at the forefront of personalized medicine and the challenges and opportunities they face in the state of Wisconsin. BioForward plans to actively grow their membership to ensure the prosperity of the biohealth industry continues across Wisconsin.