New biomanufacturing program to advance impactful technology at UW and beyond

Bill Murphy, a Harvey D. Spangler professor of biomedical engineering and professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has a new assignment.

Bill Murphy, a Harvey D. Spangler professor of biomedical engineering and professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has a new assignment. Starting with a launch event today, Murphy joins a new state biomanufacturing initiative to advance stem cell and regenerative medicine efforts on campus and beyond. The initiative includes a Biomanufacturing Center of Excellence to support technological innovation and workforce development, and create groundbreaking technologies such as new cells, tissues, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutic medical devices.

Murphy remains a faculty member with UW–Madison’s College of Engineering and School of Medicine and Public Health, but steps down as co-director of the SCRMC. In this interview, Murphy talks about his hopes for the biomanufacturing initiative and a personal passion.

IB: Tell us about the initiative, the Biomanufacturing Center of Excellence, and what the university hopes to accomplish with it?

Murphy: The Center really is a three-pillared effort. There is an institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that will be focused on new technology innovation. There is an incubator facility at University Research Park that’s going to be focused on lowering the barriers for starting new companies in biomanufacturing, and there is BioForward, which will be focused on interactions with larger companies and basically expanding the scope of the biomanufacturing industry in the state of Wisconsin. What I think is really unique about it is that it’s truly a partnership between early-stage technology development all the way through to expansion of the industry in the state of Wisconsin. So what the university hopes to accomplish with it is both more efficient development of technologies that can impact society and training of students who are more well equipped to start new companies and to develop technology efficiently.

I would just really emphasize is that this is truly a partnership. There are a number of institutes across the country, centers across the country, that are developing technologies that really are more academically focused, meaning they are not necessarily focused on finding the most direct path to commercialization and clinical impact. What we really want to do here is create a holistic effort so that each individual technology that we take on at the institute has a high degree of potential to go out and become its own company, or its own licensed and existing company, and accelerate the path toward helping patients.

That’s really quite important for us to draw that connection. Rather than essentially creating technologies and hoping that a company will take it on and disseminate it and turn it into something that’s impactful, we want to push that process and ensure that it happens. Our hope is that our hit rate on developing new technologies is going to increase dramatically with this new institute and this new center of excellence effort.

IB: It sounds like much of your work will be dedicated to aiding technology transfer to the private sector.

Murphy: “There definitely is a component of technology transfer, but the way I would describe it is that it’s more at about increasing the likelihood of impact on society. One mechanism is technology transfer but really it has to do with dissemination of these technologies. How do we get them to affect the most people?”

IB: To what extent do you think your work with UW–Madison’s College of Engineering and School of Medicine and Public Health helped prepare you for this new post?

Murphy: “It has helped prepare me quite a bit. My work over the last 14 years at the university has been focused on new technology development and developing technologies that can have an impact on industry. In addition to that, I’ve been involved in training and teaching students who are increasingly interested in having an impact on industry. So it’s had quite a substantial impact on my role in this new post.”



IB: In your estimation, what is the most promising recent development in regenerative medicine, whether it’s at UW–Madison or in general?

Murphy: “I would say the most significant, the most impactful recent developments have involved being able to create human tissues in organs outside the body. What I mean by that is there are a number of projects, both at UW–Madison and internationally, in which human stem cells have been used to form miniature-scale tissues and even organs, which are referred to as ‘organoids’ outside the body. The reason those are so significant is they allow us to study human diseases and it allows us to discover treatments for human diseases outside the body and with very high efficiency. So we can rapidly screen for compounds that might be potential drug candidates, or we can rapidly screen for compounds that might be potential toxins to human tissues and organs, and we can do so with tissues or organs that are taken from a patient.

“So what this opens up is the potential for using human tissues and organs for personalized medicine. Rather than developing a drug that might treat a subset of patients — but only a very small subset of patients — I can develop a drug that is personalized to treat only one patient. It really could have a transformative impact on medicine. One example of that which might be most impactful, particularly locally, is this idea of being able to generate human brain tissue outside the body. This is something we’ve worked on quite a bit over the past five years. Su Chun Zhang, another professor at UW–Madison, and Jamie Thompson, as well, have been working on this area quite a lot and there are three companies locally — Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics, BrainXell, and Stem Pharm — that are all working in this space, as well. They have all been developing unique technologies in this space.

“The development of these human brain models, in order to model brain diseases like neurodegenerative conditions or neurodevelopmental disorders, is becoming something that could have quite a substantial impact on patients.”

IB: What is your main passion outside of work and why do you love it?

Murphy: “I really enjoy spending time with my family, and one of the things we enjoy a lot of is we play a lot of baseball. I coach youth baseball for my kids and I also play in an adult baseball league, and really the reason I love it so much is if you truly develop a love for baseball, you’re never quite finished with it. There is always something new to learn, there is always some new skill to develop, and so I enjoy continuing to learn and improve, but I also enjoy trying to instill the love of the game into the youth who are just really starting to learn the game. It’s really a lot of fun.

“I actually play in an adult baseball league. There is a 35-year-old and older baseball league that I play in one night a week in the summer. It’s really fun with good players, and it’s a wooden bat league. It’s a little bit like a college league.

“With the youth baseball program, the thing that makes it so much fun is that with each individual kid, you get to watch the light go on as they develop their interest and their skill level, and when they really start to get it, there’s a tremendous love of the game that you can see develop in them. Each one develops a little bit differently and at a little bit different pace, but it really makes it very satisfying to see them grow. The hope is that 20 or 30 years from now, they will be doing the same thing. They will be coaching kids in youth programs and they will pass it on because it really is tremendous fun.”

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