Celebrating 25 years of embryonic stem cell research at UW–Madison

Update May 24, 2021: Read the cover story Stem cell research: Celebrating 25 years of amazing discoveries in the spring 2021 issue of the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health’s Quarterly magazine!

James Thomson on the cover of TIME magazine on Aug. 20, 2001.

By Jordana Lenon
Nov. 6, 2020

It’s been 25 years since University of Wisconsin–Madison scientist James Thomson became the first in the world to successfully isolate and culture primate embryonic stem cells. He accomplished this breakthrough first with nonhuman primates at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center in 1995, using rhesus monkey cells, then in 1996 with marmoset cells. Thomson then published his world-changing breakthrough on human embryonic stem cell derivation in Science on Nov. 6, 1998.

From these early discoveries, stem cell research has advanced to human clinical trials for treating both age-related and juvenile macular degeneration, heart disease, blood and immune system cancers, skin wounds, hearing disorders, spinal cord injury, graft-versus-host disease and more. Just as Thomson predicted in the 1990s, nonhuman primates, which were instrumental to basic stem cell research 25 years ago, are now in demand for a wealth of preclinical studies necessary before human clinical trials can begin.

Thanks to advances in pluripotent stem cell research and also gene-editing, scientists are also making progress in understanding the underlying causes of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, pregnancy disorders, sickle-cell anemia, auto-immune diseases, cartilage regeneration and much more. Universities and medical institutions today have well-established centers, such as the UW–Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, to help bring researchers and resources together to advance the field and educate the next generation of stem cell scientists, doctors, educators, business people and policy makers.

Stem cell pioneer James Thomson sitting in the atrium at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.
Emphasizing the important role that nonhuman primates played in his groundbreaking research, James Thomson, V.M.D., Ph.D., Director of Regenerative Biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research, said he came to UW–Madison in large part because it housed the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. (Morgridge Institute for Research image.)

The main uses of stem cells today include basic research to understand the human body, discovering the genetic origins of disease, growing new cells and tissues for transplant medicine, and growing cells and tissues for testing pharmaceuticals in the lab before animal and human trials commence. Stem cell research is helping animals, too. Pets and other animals under our care get cancer, diabetes, arthritis and other diseases that stem cell therapies may be able to treat.

It’s important to make sure that any therapies we may be considering are based on well-designed and thorough clinical trials. The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently cracked down on a number of rogue stem cell clinics that have offered untested, unapproved and even potentially dangerous medical interventions. Only licensed physicians with patients under their direct care should be recommending any stem cell therapy or other medical treatment.

Thanks to stem cell research breakthroughs pioneered at the National Primate Research Centers – and advanced by the many scientists and doctors who have joined the field since – we are finally unraveling the mysteries of cell biology from early development through aging as never before.

See also:

A timeline of stem cell research breakthroughs.