The University of Wisconsin is internationally known for its achievements in stem cell research–a reputation upheld in 2005 when the federal government announced a Madison research institute would house the United State’s first and only embryonic stem cell bank.

Although the UW community has remained a leader in the field, WiCell, a non-profit organization that supports stem cell research in collaboration with UW, is currently undergoing major changes after the federal contract that created the National Stem Cell Bank expired this week.

In its wake, the institute has launched the Wisconsin International Stem Cell Bank. Though WISC Bank has capabilities even beyond those of the national bank, officials say the crossover will likely have much greater implications for the scientific community.

A little history

Under the national bank for the first time, the 21 embryonic stem cell families, called lines, approved under former president George W. Bush’s administration were available for distribution and ensured to have been subject to rigorous safety testing and other standards.

On top of that, all of the stem cell lines could be ordered at a subsidized price, reducing their cost from thousands of dollars to $500 per line, bringing embryonic stem cell research within reach of a greater portion of the scientific community.

Since the bank’s formation, guidelines to receive funding for stem cell research from the government have been greatly relaxed.

In July 2009, an order issued by President Barack Obama went into effect that revoked a 2001 order by Bush that limited federal funding to the 21 lines already developed.

Obama’s order also enabled the development of new guidelines that sought to ensure the largest number of responsibly derived embryonic stem cell lines would be eligible for federal funding.

While these new rules have created some confusion for researchers and stem cell distributors, the funding they will make available could further open the door to huge strides being made in the field, including the development of new lines and the introduction of similar-acting varieties called induced pluripotent cells produced from adult cells instead of embryos.

WiCell makes the shift

With the end of the national contract approaching, WiCell launched WISC Bank, which distributes the 21 original lines, newer varieties and iPS cells. WiCell already distributed many of the extra types of cells alongside those offered through NSCB.

On Feb. 2, the national bank stopped accepting orders and all new requests were directed to WISC Bank. NSCB continued to fill outstanding cell requests until Feb. 28, when the contract expired and operations were fully switched over to WISC Bank.

Erik Forsberg, executive director of WiCell, said the transition has been smooth considering the facility uses the same methods to track and ship orders. Cells are subject to the same quality control standards and the facility has experience working with each of the lines.

The cells will, however, be distributed at full price. While Forsberg said because of the implementation of the new 2009 guidelines the federal subsidy for most of the lines had been disrupted, prior to 2009 all of the lines were available for $500.

WiCell spokesperson Janet Kelly said under WISC Bank, lines now cost $1,000.

What this means for Madison

Kelly said the shift would have implications for not only Madison, but the entire world.

“Without a national bank or provision for the NIH to fund any type of stem cell bank, it will be challenging for researchers to obtain stem cells that are thoroughly tested and meet high standards for quality assurance in a reliable and efficient manner,” Kelly said in an e-mail to the Badger Herald. “Researchers already are confused about how to obtain the newly approved cell lines and many of the originators of these lines do not want to operate a distribution service.”

Despite the increase in price, Forsberg said order numbers are still strong and in line with what WiCell previously saw on a monthly basis.

He also said despite the loss of association with the government via a contract, Madison will continue to be seen as a center for the cells.

“In some ways you could view it as a setback, but the reputation is so well-established I think in the long run it won’t have a big effect,” Forsberg said. “It certainly helps to have the connections with the U.S. government or the national stem cell bank, but because we … have stem cell lines all over the world, I think the reputation will remain.”