Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Human and Health Services and former Wisconsin governor, spoke about stem-cell research Friday at the Health Sciences Center groundbreaking ceremony.
Appearing alone in a press conference and then at a presentation with Gov. Scott McCallum, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley and others, Thompson was excited about UW’s science potential.
“UW-Madison is in the cat-bird seat to be able to bring it all together,” Thompson said. “And this new building is just one step further in that direction.”
Thompson was most excited about stem-cell opportunities at UW.
“What this is going to mean to Madison, to this campus and to this state is unbelievable,” he said. “There’s probably ten states that have the potential to really lead biotechnology, and Wisconsin is one of them.”
In 1998 UW scientist James Thomson became the first to isolate the human embryonic stem cell. UW holds the patent to the revolutionary discovery, which could lead to cures of debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Thompson’s behind-the-scenes efforts have helped to thrust this breakthrough, and UW, into the national spotlight.
“This campus owes him a great debt of gratitude,” Wiley said during the groundbreaking ceremonies.
While Thompson admits in the past he took great pride in pushing for stem-cell research, which is controversial among abortion opponents because it destroys fertilized embryos, he denies he used his position on the Bush cabinet to reap benefits for his former home.
“This is so important to this campus and to this state and to this science that I didn’t want anybody to be able to point their fingers and say, ‘Because Tommy Thompson used to be governor of this state and now is secretary, he unduly influenced this contract,'” Thompson said. “It was completely arm’s length, and I stayed out of all negotiations.”
The contract Thompson referred to is a recent alliance between the National Institute of Health, an HHS department, and WiCell, Inc., a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation that owns the stem-cell patent. The agreement allows scientists use federal funding for stem-cell research without stripping WiCell of its property rights.
“It puts us in the forefront of stem-cell research,” WARF spokesman Andrew Cohn said.
Aside from stem cells, Thompson said, UW is one of the best in the science field.
“The next ten years are going to be the most exciting time for new discoveries and new medicines,” he said. “People want to come here and be a part of what’s taking place.”
Thompson also indicated what federal funding and his powerful power will mean for enhancing UW’s role in the science world.
“We’re going to put in a minimum of $2.8 billion this year in additional research money to NIH,” Thompson said. “[If] we’re going to spend more [money on cell research] this year and, you have the foremost founder of embryonic stem cells in the world on the campus, you don’t have to have too big a leap of faith to believe that some of that money is going to be attracted to this campus.”
McCallum also showed his support for the new building and a prominent role for UW.
“These facilities will not only serve students of the health services but also the entire state,” McCallum said. “It will be a world-class center. This will help keep UW-Madison at the forefront of biotechnology.”
The new Health Sciences Learning Center is slated for completion in 2003. The third and final stage of HealthStar will be an interdisciplinary research complex expected to be built by 2005.