20 Years of Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Dr. David Russell presenting at the 13th Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium. The session was moderated by Dr. James Thomson.

“20 years ago, when I first heard about the creation of human embryonic stem cells, I knew that this was the future. I immediately requested the cells from Dr. Thomson and dropped almost everything else we were doing in our lab. It has been my focus to this day.” The person presenting is Dr. David Russell, a professor at the University of Washington. He is just one of the hundreds of researchers gathered at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (a nonprofit supported by Promega) in Madison, Wisconsin for the 13th Annual Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium that happened this week. This year, it’s not just a symposium, but also a celebration—it’s the 20-year anniversary of the first-ever isolation and culture of human embryonic stem (ES) cells.

In 1998, Dr. James Thomson, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, created the first ES-cell line using donated (unused) embryos from a fertility clinic. The study sent a shockwave through the scientific community and general public. We now had the technology to grow human pluripotent ES cells—with the potential to develop into every cell type in the human body—in a dish! Thomson quickly became a celebrity scientist. (Thomson’s headshot was on the cover of the August 20, 2001 issue of Time Magazine, next to big text that read: “The Man Who Brought You Stem Cells”.)

However, not all were excited about the news. Backlash from conservative communities, who opposed the use of human embryos, resulted in a temporary ban on developing new ES cell lines with government funding. Nonetheless, the ban did not deter researchers from studying ES cells using private or state funding. By 2001, human ES cells have been successfully derived into neural, cardiac, hematopoietic, endothelial, and insulin-producing cells. In 2010, the first in-human clinical trial was initiated; which used human ES cell-derived materials to treat spinal cord injury.

2006 marked another milestone in stem cell research: the discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University successfully reprogrammed adult fibroblasts (common cells in connective tissue that form the extracellular matrix and collagen) to revert back into an embryonic-like pluripotent state—simply by expressing four specific genes. He named these reprogrammed cells “induced pluripotent stem cells” or iPS cells. A year later, human iPS cells were made in a similar fashion by both Thomson and Yamanaka. Yamanaka later received the 2012 Nobel Prize (some argue that Thomson deserved to share the prize).

Photo credit: 123rf stock photos.

The ability to reprogram adult cells back into a pluripotent state suggested we could create an unlimited supply of pluripotent cells that genetically matched a specific individual—without the ethical baggage of using human embryos. This meant, in theory, you could take fibroblasts from a patient with a neurological disorder, such as Parkinson’s disease, revert the fibroblasts into iPS cells, edit the “faulty genes” in those cells, then redifferentiate the healthy iPS cells into neural stem cells that can be introduced back into the same patient to produce healthy neurons. Of course, this is easier said than done. The technical difficulties and high cost of generating and editing iPS cells from individual patients have complicated the development of iPS-based treatments. Currently, there is only one human clinical trial using cells derived from iPS cells, which treats macular degeneration (an incurable eye disease that leads to blindness).

Despite the emergence of iPS cells, ES cells have continued to dominate in the clinical realm. To this date, there are 18 clinical trials using ES cells to treat various disorders, including macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, heart disease and diabetes. The future is bright, but there is still one major problem in ES cell-based therapies. Because ES cell treatments use donor cells from other healthy individuals—not the patients’ own cells—there is a high risk of immune rejection. But no fear, scientists have a plan.

In 2017, Dr. David Russell (mentioned in the beginning of this blog) re-engineered human ES cells to remove specific proteins—human leukocyte antigens (HLA)—from the cell surface. HLA proteins allow the immune system to determine whether the presenting cell is “self” or “foreign”. Removing HLA proteins is like wrapping the foreign cell with an invisible cloak, rendering it unnoticeable by the immune system. In his talk at the Stem Cell Symposium, Russell discussed the many advantages of using these “universal donor cells (UDCs)” to treat diseases. Only one cell line is needed, which reduces the cost, complexity and time required for clinical trials. Also, it does not require immunosuppression, which weakens the patient’s immune system. Russell and many others believe that UDCs are the future of regenerative medicine. In fact, UDC-based therapies to treat cancer, macular degeneration, skin wounds and type 1 diabetes are already being developed.

It is amazing to see how far we have come over the last 20 years. Thanks to visionary scientists like James Thomson, Shinya Yamanaka, David Russell—and countless other principal investigators, post-docs and grad students who work tirelessly in the lab every day—treatments for many life-threatening diseases may be available in the near future. Nonetheless, there is still much more to learn and many more challenges to overcome. Who knows where the next 20 years will take us?

FutureQuest17: Dynamic Career Exploration for Middle School Students

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

The Dane County School Consortium and the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Career and Technical Education Division collaborated to offer FutureQuest17 on December 6th at the Alliant Energy Center.  Designed as a hands-on experience for Dane County middle school students to explore areas of potential interest within a 16 career cluster, over 70 companies provided information and activities for 5300+ attendees.

BTC Institute staff members (Isabel Agasie, Amy Prevost and Karin Borgh) and volunteer Promega production scientists (Molly Nyholm and Kay Rashka) created a lively table area that focused on bioluminescence. Our space included opportunities to see an illustration of the range of careers in a biotechnology company like Promega, practice with different sizes of pipettes, view glowing recombinant luciferase, watch a scrolling slide show illustrating bioluminescence both in nature and in the lab and consider why a scientist might be interested in bioluminescence as a research tool.

Most importantly, we were able to engage in many wonderful conversations, and for this we needed all five of us since the schedule for the day included 14 periods of 20 minutes each—our estimate is that we were able to speak with ~40–50 students during each of these cycles!

As Molly noted:

The questions students asked were fantastic!!  “What is the chemical composition of this luciferin solution?”  “How much money do you make?”  “Do all glowing creatures have the same luciferase enzyme or are they different?”  “Are there any bioluminescent fish in Wisconsin?”  “Do I have to go to school for as long as you did if I want to be a scientist?”  “What pH is this solution?”  “Does this have potassium or sodium iodide?”  “Can I do an internship?”  “Can I be on the culinary team at Promega?”  “Does my glow paint have luciferase in it?”  “Do you have to take luciferase and luciferin out of those creatures or is there a way to make it in the lab?”

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

And, Isabel added:

It was really great to connect with students and also with teachers. Lots of fun being surrounded by kids and fantastic adults. Some kids were surprised to learn that a biotechnology company hires people in other areas besides science. They asked about diversity and were very glad to hear that there are many different kinds of jobs in biotech companies.

Some of the other presenters in the STEM area of the event that we were in close proximity to included: the City of Madison Engineering Division (where students could construct marble runs that represented water flow), Saris (where students could ride bikes set up to display a training program), Laser Tag (try it out!), very active construction companies’ hammering stations and the MG&E’s electric car. In other words, the level of activity was high, and it was wonderful to contribute to this event—we’ll be back next year!

Playing it Forward: Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship and Mentorship

Amani Gillette’s Story

Amani working in the laboratory of Dr. McFall-Ngai’s as a high school Youth Apprentice

Amani Gillette, a junior from LaFollette High School in Madison, started the Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program (YAP) in Fall Semester, 2010.  An outstanding youth apprentice (YA) throughout her two years in the program, she excelled in both the specialized laboratory course at the BTC Institute and in her work site research under the mentorship of Professor Margaret McFall-Ngai, UW-Madison Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology.  Amani’s characterization of a gene and protein found in a small tropical squid resulted in her first scientific publication and poster presentation.

Fast forward— after receiving a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Michigan Technological University (which included working in a tissue engineering lab and two summers interning at Promega Corporation under the supervision of Dr. Dan Lazar to help develop an assay for autophagy), Amani is now back in Madison. She is in her second year of graduate school and, working with Dr. Melissa Skala at the Morgridge Institute for Research, is currently mentoring Biotechnology YA Ava VanDommelen (senior from DeForest High School). Following in Amani’s footsteps, Ava will present her research nationally this January at the SPIE conference (the International Society of Optics and Photonics). Continue reading

On the Road with the Biotechnology Field Trips Program

BFT-aThe On the Road (OTR) BTC Institute Biotechnology Field Trips (BFT) program is rolling right along!  We are doing our best to brave the winter weather to take hands-on science activities all over the state of Wisconsin.

The BTC Institute BFT program served over 3,400 students last year, most of them here at the BTC in Fitchburg.  That said, each year the OTR part of the program is growing in order to serve schools that cannot travel here for various reasons, such as distance, bus costs and the need to minimize out of school time. Continue reading

The Unforgettable Experience of Traveling: Beyond the Formal Learning Experience

CTPGE students (l to r): Anna Facchetti, Anqi Fu, Pureum Jeon, and Hajeong Sim; Anna and Anqi are UW-Madison graduate students.

CTPGE students (l to r): Anna Facchetti, Anqi Fu, Pureum Jeon, and Hajeong Sim;
Anna and Anqi are UW-Madison graduate students.

Last fall, I blogged about our partnership with Promega-Hannam BTCI at Hannam University in Daejeon, Korea , providing an overview of the ways in which we have collaborated over the years.

This year, 2016,  included the participation of two Hannam students, Pureum Jeon and Hajeong Sim, in one of our advanced courses, Core Techniques in Protein and Genetic Engineering (CTPGE), which offers graduate credits through the University of Wisconsin-Madison. UW-Madison is a bustling campus with a large international student, staff and faculty population, and Promega Corporation is a global company with a diverse workforce that brings a steady stream of international visitors to its main campus in Fitchburg. My sense is that sometimes those of us who live and work in environments like this, who also regularly tap into global news, can lose touch with what it’s like to leave home and travel to a completely new place, perhaps somewhere far away where the language spoken is not your own.

Our experience with Pureum and Hajeong this summer was a reminder of how important these experiences can be for those who make these journeys. Their participation in the course provided them with valuable training, but the small things, like walking around the UW campus, having dinner with one of us, driving through rural Wisconsin and feeling welcomed at the hotel, also meant so much.

In their own words, here are a few of their thoughts: Continue reading

Summer 2016: Exciting Science Programs for Kids at the BTC Institute!

First, a quick update: Hard to believe, but we’re in our 21st academic year at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute).  February finds us immersed in our usual second semester offerings.  Our Biotechnology Field Trips program is on the way to record attendance, but it’s not too late for you to schedule a visit for this spring, or for a group this summer: btci blog photo 2http://www.btci.org/k12/bft/bft.html.

We’re also pleased to report that work site mentors have been found for almost all of the juniors and seniors enrolled in the State of Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program in Biotechnology – Dane County (http://www.btci.org/k12/yap/yap.html).

Now, let’s turn our attention to Summer 2016.  We’re excited to once again offer great opportunities for upper elementary, middle and high school students to engage in activities that will allow them to explore their interests in the life sciences – and to learn a lot along the way. And, it’s not too soon to think about summer! Here’s a rundown of what’s in store: Continue reading

Integrative Neurosciences: Exploring Consciousness

neuronal signalingIn a world of tangible atoms and molecules, the existence of consciousness is still regarded as a mystery. Many themes related to the nature of consciousness and the meaning of conscious evolution will be explored at this year’s International Forum on Consciousness to be held May 7-8 in Fitchburg/Madison, Wisconsin. Hosted by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) and Promega Corporation, an internationally renowned group of presenters will share their thoughts and experiences as they discuss how we may actively participate in shaping our collective future.

consciousness header

Across the two-day Forum, presentations include:

  • Explorations into the Body of Consciousness (Charles Raison, M.D.)
  • Conscious Evolution: Our Next Stage (Barbara Marx-Hubbard)
  • Self-Awareness (Peter Russell, M.A., D.C.S.)
  • WHAT TO REMEMBER WHEN WAKING: The Art of Shaping the Beautiful Question (David Whyte)
  • Is There a Neurobiology of Collective Unconscious? (Joy Hirsch, Ph.D.)
  • What Could Be an Awakened Response to Our World? (Vanja Palmers)
  • Awakening the Sacred Within (Adele Getty)
  • Who is Awakening? What Does it Mean to be Awake? (Brother David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B.)

Continue reading

Career Development for Working Professionals: UW Master of Science in Biotechnology Program

Prior to the Masters in Biotechnology program, I had no working knowledge of Intellectual Property (IP), e.g., patents, trademarks, etc. The M.S. in Biotechnology program not only opened my eyes to Intellectual Property and its importance in biotechnology companies, but it sparked my interested in a career in an IP field. From the knowledge I gained and connections made in the program, I have been able to achieve a career in IP. I am now happy to be able to share my experience and knowledge with current and future students in the program.
—Heather Gerard, M.S. (2006) Intellectual Property Manager, Promega Corporation

Since 2002, the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) has been effectively collaborating with the UW Master of Science in Biotechnology Program (MS-Biotechnology) to provide the three lab-based Molecular Technologies courses for this unique degree designed for working professionals.

As noted on the program’s web site, it offers:

  • A curriculum like no other that integrates topics in science, business and law
  • Powerful skills that bring the “big picture” of life science product development into clear focus
  • Exclusive evening/weekend courses allowing you to work full-time while enrolled, and
  • A completed degree in less than two years

Continue reading

Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program Fosters Young Scientists

Student working in laboratory.

Photo credit: BTC Institute.

Ellyn Lepinski is an intern at Promega who started her biotechnology career path five years ago as a high school junior taking a course from the BTC Institute (www.btci.org) as part of the Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Ellyn credits the program with helping her achieve her goals:

“Over the course of two years in which I was a Youth Apprentice, I obtained numerous skills, both inside and outside of the lab. I gained valuable scientific experience, including techniques like gel electrophoresis, nucleic acid purification, PCR, SDS-PAGE, Western blotting, cell culture and more.

On a personal level, I became very close with other students in the class and with our instructors, Barbara Bielec and Chad Zimprich. Everyone involved was always very approachable and willing to help with both laboratory tasks and in terms of giving advice for the future.

Through the program, I was placed in Dr. Que Lan’s entomology lab at UW-Madison, beginning in 2009. While there, I worked on a project involving sterol carrier protein-2, a protein involved in cholesterol uptake in mosquitoes.Notably, I am still working in Dr. Lan’s lab, however my research focus has shifted to bacterial fermentation. In between working in Dr. Lan’s lab, I also worked at the Forest Products Laboratory (USDA).

Additionally, this past June, I began an internship at Promega in the Scientific Applications department. Here I work to develop new applications for existing projects. This November marks five years of laboratory research for me, which would not have been possible without the Youth Apprenticeship Program and everyone involved. In addition to the specific labs that I have had the opportunity to work in, my experience in the Youth Apprenticeship Program has allowed me to emerge as a leader in my college lab courses. The program has clearly made a phenomenal impact on my life and is something I am very grateful for.”

Photo credit: BTC Institute.

Photo credit: BTC Institute.

Since 1993, the BTC Institute in partnership with the Dane County School Consortium has helped make such opportunities possible to nearly 300 students from public schools throughout Dane County. The program includes a paid apprenticeship in an industry or UW-Madison research lab and specialized instruction. In addition to being paid for their work, students receive high school credit for their participation in the worksite and the specialized biotechnology course held at the BTC Institute.

One aspect of the program that makes it so effective and unique is the amount of time that students spend working. Youth apprentices who start as juniors in the program must work 900 paid work hours to earn the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Skill Standards Certificate from the State of Wisconsin, youth apprentices who start work as seniors must earn 450 work hours. Students have had employment at a variety of companies and UW-Madison research labs, a few examples that have hired multiple apprentices include Genus PIC (ABS), MOFA Global, Promega and laboratories in the UW-Madison Departments of Bacteriology, Biochemistry, Entomology, Genetics, Horticulture, Plant Pathology and Surgery. Many of the students, like Ellyn, continue to be employed by their worksite long after they graduate from high school—proof of how effective this program is in helping to create the next generation STEM workforce.

Each year the BTC Institute hosts a Youth Apprenticeship Program preview night for all of the Dane County youth apprenticeship options: biotechnology, automotive technician, health services, and many more (www.dcsc.org). This year the preview nights will be held February 24 and 25 starting at 5:00pm. Students in grades 10 and 11 who are interested in learning more about the program are encouraged to attend one of the evening sessions with a parent.

Opportunities for High School Students to Learn at the BTC Institute

Paul Simon famously sang about what it was like to engage as a learner in a high school environment—though his lack of education certainly hasn’t hurt him any, I do wonder about reading the “writing on the wall”. Frequently, in Education, we talk about the challenges of preparing students for careers that have yet to be invented. What to do?

One major initiative within K-16 education can broadly be referred to as “21st Century Skills”—those that are needed for individuals to be successful contributors in a society where concrete goals are moving targets. Though we don’t know the exact details, we’re pretty sure that there are some basic elements that all people will need to be successful contributors to society.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills has built a framework for understanding and aligning our education system toward these skills:

Photocredit: Partnership for 21st Century Skills http://www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework

Photocredit: Partnership for 21st Century Skills http://www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework

Applying this model to educational programming takes a lot of innovation and hard work on the part of instructors as well as students. However, students who have the opportunity to engage with a teaching and learning system that makes use of these concepts can reap big rewards when it comes to being able to understand how their learning can be applied to solving problems. Here at the BTC Institute, we have been fortunate to work with the Dane County (Wisconsin) School Consortium to develop two offerings for high school students in the area of biotechnology that really work within this model and give students the contextualization they need to develop academic and career skills. Continue reading