Skip to main content
Stem cells
September 12, 2017

UW-Madison major partner in $20 million research center to expand use of therapies based on living cells

Written By: Silke Schmidt

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded nearly $20 million to a consortium of universities to support a new engineering research center that will develop transformative tools and technologies for the consistent, scalable and low-cost production of high-quality living therapeutic cells. Such cells could be used in a broad range of life-saving medical therapies now emerging from research laboratories.

The new NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies (CMaT) will be led by the Georgia Institute of Technology. Working closely with industry and clinical partners, it could help revolutionize the treatment of cancer, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and other disorders.

Sean Palecek in the lab
Sean Palecek. Photo: Stephanie Precourt.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison was selected as a major partner for its pioneering efforts in stem cell engineering and a long history of collaboration between the College of Engineering and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, says Sean Palecek, the Milton J. and A. Maude Shoemaker Professor in chemical and biological engineering who is the project’s associate director for research. Additional partners include the University of Georgia and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus.

The UW-Madison team includes William Murphy, the Harvey D. Spangler Professor in biomedical engineering; Randolph Ashton and Krishanu Saha, both assistant professors of biomedical engineering; Cardiology Professor Timothy Kamp; Medical History and Bioethics Professor Linda Hogle; and Mary Fitzpatrick, who directs the College of Engineering’s diversity research and initiatives.

The UW-Madison researchers will focus on two disease applications: induced pluripotent stem cells for making heart muscle and engineered T cells to combat cancer.

In July 2017, the oncological drugs advisory committee of the Food and Drug Administration endorsed the use of T cells, a type of immune cells in the blood, for treating certain types of blood cancer. “Engineering the patient’s own T cells to recognize and kill tumor cells is one of the new frontiers in cancer research,” says Palecek. “But more work is needed to prevent a massive immune response in the patients who receive these modified T cells, and to learn how this type of therapy may eventually be applied to solid tumors as well.”

To realize the promise of stem cell-derived heart muscle cells for survivors of a heart attack, who typically lose about 25 percent of their pump’s muscle mass, researchers need to go from making millions of cells to billions while ensuring uniformly high quality. “Cell therapy is today where biotechnology was in the 1980s,” Palecek says. “It is a field with a ton of promise that we know will be big. But since we don’t yet have a cure for anything, we need to make plans for a manufacturing process while we don’t exactly know yet the specific cell type we’re going to manufacture.”

To help with that tall order, CMaT will rely on the combined expertise of the UW Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, co-directed by Murphy and Kamp, and the resources of Waisman Biomanufacturing, a cell and gene product development facility at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center. “UW-Madison is one of just a handful of places in the world that has this kind of biomanufacturing capability right here on campus, allowing for a much faster translation of lab research findings to the clinic,” Palecek says.

Working with UW-Madison, Waisman Biomanufacturing, along with the technical institution Madison College and an already formed CMaT industry consortium, will be critical partners in workforce development, since the fast-growing cell therapy industry will need many more people with specialized training, especially at the community college level.

Madison College is ahead of the curve with an existing stem cell certificate program and, with CMaT support, will further refine the skills taught through this program and help establish similar training opportunities throughout the country. UW-Madison’s Fitzpatrick will co-direct center research on inclusivity impacts on manufacturing.

Palecek says building a community of people with different levels of training and career paths, but similar overall interests, is one of the biggest benefits of a large-scale project like CMaT. “The opportunity for collaboration across multiple disciplines and institutions is very exciting,” he says. “In addition, our regular interactions with companies that are on the front line of making these cells mean that they may sponsor additional research efforts and offer internships to our students, ensuring that this kind of public-private partnership will truly be win-win for everybody.”