In his lab tucked far away from the UW-Madison campus, James Thomson spends his days researching and trying to change science as we know it.
Inside the lab lie millions and millions of cells, so tiny they cannot be seen by the naked eye, but so valuable that the tiny thimble-sized vials cost researchers over $5,000. The cells have put UW and Thomson on the science scene with as big of a bang as any major discovery in history.
In 1998, Thomson announced some of the most important news the science world has heard in modern times — Thomson had discovered how to isolate the human embryonic stem cell.
“He was able to achieve the holy grail, if you will,” said Tim Mulcahy, UW associate dean of biological sciences. “People have been wanting to do this for decades, and [Thomson] found the key to unlock it.”
The five lines of cells are now a hot item in the science world. The fertilized embryos, at less than a week old, are important because they have yet to begin specializing into one of the 220 different types of cells. This means that these cells stand as the primitive form of all human cellular material. With the correct coaxing, a technique still being researched, they can be pushed into becoming any type of human cell.
“One of the objectives for decades in biology is an understanding of how we can start from a single cell to a complex organism with over 200 cell types,” Mulcahy said. “A whole new area of medicine is beginning to evolve: an area called regenerative medicine.”
“It has the potential to revolutionize certain aspects of medicine,” Thomson spokesman Terry Devitt, of UW Communications, said. “A lot of people are desperately ill, and this is a help they might have.”
If scientists get the results and support they are seeking, these never-ending streams of stem cells could be used to cure diseases that have confounded researchers for years.
Stem-cell research seeks to combat a seemingly endless list of diseases, but on a larger scale scientists have faith that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases may be significantly reduced or even cured. In some studies, paralyzed mice have been able to function again by replacing the injured spinal cord with newer cells.
The stem cells may even be used to replace cells that die in the course of a heart attack.
UW owns five of the stem-cell lines and the patent behind the embryonic stem cell and expects that, for the next few years, most stem-cell research and breakthroughs will come from Thomson and other UW researchers.
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Thomson and his work, and with the current scramble for stem cells, there are high hopes that UW will bring in an unparalleled amount of money in the near future.
“WARF has invested over $1 million in this lab,” said Andy Cohn, spokesman for WARF. “But I think it will provide, in a very short period of time, treatment for the world’s most devastating diseases.”