Madison hosts World Stem Cell Summit starting today: Rapidly evolving industry is creating public forum

Mark Johnson and Kathleen GallagherMilwaukee Journal Sentinel

Released : Sunday, September 21, 2008 4:00 AM

Sep. 21--With their field riding a wave of discovery and change, researchers, financiers and policy-makers from around the world will arrive today for the 2008 World Stem Cell Summit in Madison, the city where James Thomson started a scientific revolution almost a decade ago.

If any need confirmation of the rapidly changing landscape, it should come with this announcement planned for the summit: The two Madison companies co-founded by Thomson have merged and shifted their focus to products involving non-embryonic stem cells.

In 1998, Thomson was the first person to isolate human embryonic stem cells, launching a national debate and making Madison a major destination for stem cell research.

Last November, Thomson's team and a separate group from Japan made history and suggested a new direction for stem cells by reprogramming human skin cells back to an embryonic state. The new cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells.

Ever since the reprogramming breakthrough, researchers have published a stream of papers using the new technique to rescue mice with sickle cell anemia and to create human cell lines from people with a host of different diseases. The cell lines hold the promise of allowing scientists to gain a new window into the disease process and a powerful new tool for testing drugs. Longer term, the new technology may allow doctors to use patients' own cells to treat genetic and other ailments.

Thomson's merged company, Cellular Dynamics International, is "moving rapidly" toward marketing human skin cells it reprograms into heart and blood cells that drug developers can use to test whether their compounds will be safe for humans, said Chris Kendrick-Parker, CDI's chief commercial officer.