Making New Cell Types

James Thomson continues to study human embryonic stem cells. He and Dan Kaufman announced in late 2001 that they had made these cells produce many kinds of blood cells by growing the stem cells with blood-forming cells from a mouse. Later, other University of Wisconsin researchers made precursors of nerve cells and heart muscle cells from human embryonic stem cells. Thomson's scientific group has also learned how to change genes in embryonic stem cells so that the cells can be used as laboratory models of human diseases. In 2004, Thomson was focusing his research on finding out how human and nonhuman primate embryonic stem cells "decide" whether to produce more stem cells, make differentiated cells, or die.

In the near term, Thomson has told reporters, he hopes to see human embryonic stem cells used to test drugs and to reveal details about the way normal development takes place. His long-term goals are to find efficient ways to grow these cells in large-scale cultures, to make the cells produce specific types of descendants that will help in medical research, and to work out ways of using transplanted embryonic stem cells as treatments for human diseases.

Thomson is presently the John D. McArthur Professor of Anatomy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison's medical school, as well as chief pathologist at the primate center and the scientific director of the WiCell Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that WARF established in 1999 to support embryonic stem cell research at the university, distribute embryonic cells to other laboratories, and train researchers to work with the cells. Thomson has received several awards, including the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement (1999), the Lois Pope LIFE International

Research Award (2002), and the Frank Annunzio Award from the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation (2003). R. Timothy Mulcahy, the associate vice chancellor for research policy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told Terry Devitt in 2003, "Thomson's discovery elevated the [stem cell] field to heights previously thought impossible, and has brought within reach all the promise others in the field have long dreamed of."

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