Stem cell researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Waisman Center hope their ongoing work will eventually allow them to move into human clinical trials to treat degenerative illnesses such Parkinson’s disease and Down syndrome.

UW has been at the forefront of stem cell research since 1998 when James Thomson, director of Regenerative Biology at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, isolated the first human embryonic stem cells.

Waisman Manufacturing Director Derek Hei said UW has a very strong presence in the area of pluripotent stem cells research because of Thomson’s work.

Hei said with the discovery of pluripotent stem cells, research has expanded to include the development of disease models by producing induced pluripotent stem cells from people with specific diseases, like Down syndrome and heart diseases.

“Much of this work has either indirectly or directly focused on producing cell types that may need to be replaced in degenerative diseases; for example, neurons in people with Parkinson’s Disease, retina in blind people or heart muscle cells in heart attack victims,” Hei said.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells from which other types of cells can arise, according to the Stem Cell and Regenerative Center at UW’s website. Pluripotent stem cells are derived from a mature adult cell and can be transformed into a cell that has all the characteristics of an embryonic stem cell. This particular type of stem cells also have the ability to divide for long periods while retaining the ability to make all cell types within the organism, the website said.

Waisman Biomanufacturing is strictly focused on helping investigators develop therapeutics based on stem cells, either adult or pluripotent stem cells, Hei said.

He said their research is primarily looking at how to produce large quantities of therapeutic cells that meet the requirements for use in human clinical trials.

“Our primary goal is to help UW investigators move their stem cell-based therapy, gene therapeutic, vaccine into human clinical trials. This is really the best way to provide the full benefit of some of the breakthrough research that is being done here at UW,” Hei said.

Hei said this research would benefit UW by providing the ability to translate scientific breakthroughs into therapies that will someday benefit the public.

Waisman Biomanufacturing and Waisman Center researchers hope to efficiently develop drugs and decrease the high cost and long timeline for drug development, he added.