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An opportunity to innovate

After conducting research at Scotland’s Roslin Institute (birthplace of Dolly the cloned sheep) and creating in-vitro models of obesity and Parkinson’s Disease for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Gabriela Cezar has returned to UW-Madison.

Not just any university could lure such a talented researcher away from the private biotech industry. But Wisconsin is not just any university – not when it comes to stem-cell research – Cezar points out.

“I left Pfizer because it was Wisconsin. Had it been another institution that doesn’t have the leadership and the other capabilities that we do here, I wouldn’t have done it.”

The opportunity to use human embryonic stem cells in her research made UW-Madison an easy choice for Cezar, who had been working with mouse cells at Pfizer. Since coming to Madison last August, Cezar has run the Stem Cell Safety Lab in the animal sciences department in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Her lab focuses on two areas of research: birth defects and cancer.

By using human embryonic stem cells as a way of understanding non-genetic birth defects, Cezar and her team of researchers hope to learn how these defects arise and what biological pathways are involved during their development.

“We expect to generate a panel of molecular markers coming from embryonic stem cells that could be used in diagnosis and in the management of these preventable diseases,” she says.

Jessica Quam, a graduate student in endocrinology and reproductive physiology, has been working as a research assistant in Cezar”s lab since last August.

“The work we”re doing could help effectively predict what”s going to happen with new drugs and chemicals in the environment,” Quam says. Lab results are correlating with in vivo observation of birth defects, she adds. “We”re starting to make a lot of progress.”

Cancer research in Cezar”s lab focuses on isolating and characterizing cancer cells in order to explore treatment alternatives. By comparing parental and tumor cell lines, Cezar”s team hopes to learn why some cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

“The cancer cell, in a way, is an adult cell that starts behaving like an embryonic cell,” Cezar says. She says that it”s no coincidence that some of the best cancer drugs are severe teratogens – agents that interrupt normal development, causing birth defects.

Although she often travels far off campus for speaking engagements or collaborations with scientists, Cezar keeps her finger on the pulse of the lab, says lab manager Alice Wentworth. When she”s globetrotting, Cezar is eager to hear of results from her lab projects.

“She also has a whole lot of empathy for her students,” says Wentworth. “She cares about each and every one of them very much.” This level of interaction, coupled with her contagious enthusiasm, fosters both independent thinking and excellent teamwork.

“It”s always a we thing,” Wentworth says. “She”s developed a team, and in a lab that”s incredibly important.”

Cezar says that one of the most exciting things about moving to academia and the UW-Madison was the opportunity for innovation. “You really have more freedom to create, to discover, and to test these ideas,” she says.

While many private and academic research labs focus on a smaller area, Wisconsin”s stem cell research runs the gamut, she points out.

“Our stem cell research is as diverse as the biomedical need,” Cezar says. “We cover a vast array of diseases. But not only that- we have engineers and bioethicists. We have everyone working together, and that is one of our greatest strengths.”

“The other thing I really like about academia is the freedom to communicate,” she says. Cezar is using this freedom to nurture collaborations across the country and across the globe, from California to Italy to New Zealand.

Animal sciences department chairman Dan Schaefer says that Cezar has brought the department”s name and work into new circles. “Gabby has given the department a very visible presence in the biotechnology and bio-business networks,” Schaefer says. The department has had such visibility in the past, he notes – through the efforts of reproductive physiologist Neal First, a pioneer in cloning research, and others.

“Gabby is carrying our name back into these circles with a very modern, high-impact research topic,” Schaefer says.

Cezar also cites the talent pool as one more factor that sets the university apart from other research institutions. “I”m coming back and working with some of the professors that were on my thesis committee,” including UW”s own stem cell pioneer Jaime Thomson. “We generate professionals in every area of the life sciences that are second to none. It”s extraordinary.”

Another reason that top-notch researchers want to come to Madison, says Cezar, is the ability to transfer technological innovation to the marketplace via the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

“WARF works with us to protect intellectual property that is generated on this campus, and when they do commercialize this, that investment comes right back here to foster more innovation and more discovery,” Cezar says. “It”s a really exciting era on campus.”