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Full Name and Degrees: 
James A. Thomson, M.D., Ph.D.
Member Role: 
Affiliated Investigator
Institutional affiliation: 
University of Wisconsin

In 1998, Dr. James Thomson isolated the first human embryonic stem cell, effectively ushering in a new field of scientific research. Undifferentiated cells with remarkable potential, embryonic stem cells can both proliferate without limit and become any of the differentiated cells of the body. As a research tool, human embryonic cells allow unprecedented access to the cellular components of the body, with significant applications in basic research, drug discovery and transplantation medicine.

Immediately following that initial derivation, Thomson focused his research on establishing human embryonic stem cells as an accepted, practical model system. To that end, he developed defined culture conditions, methods for genetic manipulation, and approaches for the in vitro differentiation of human embryonic stem cells to key lineages of clinical importance including blood, neural, cardiac and placental tissues.

In 2007, Thomson’s team achieved another major advance when it succeeded in reprogramming skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem cells exhibit the defining characteristics of human embryonic stem cells, but are not derived from embryos. Furthermore, the derivation of induced pluripotent cells allows for better control over the genetic makeup of the cell lines, especially in terms of deriving better in vitro models of human disease and for preventing immune rejection in transplantation therapies based on these cells. Named by NatureScience, and Time magazines as one of the most significant advances of 2007, induced pluripotent stem cells continue to capture the imagination of the scientific community, leaving little doubt that these cells will quickly expand the impact of human pluripotent stem cell research.

Thomson’s regenerative biology laboratory at the Morgridge Institute for Research is now seeking to understand how a cell can maintain or change identity, how a cell chooses between self-renewal and the initial decision to differentiate and how a differentiated cell with limited developmental potential can be reprogrammed to a pluripotent cell. By coaxing, directing and tweaking human pluripotent cells, scientists in Thomson’s lab work to create physiologically stable, safe and functional cells to repair or replace diseased cells in humans. With each experiment, Thomson’s group moves closer to making regenerative medicine a reality and achieving the remarkable potential of human pluripotent stem cells.


What do the Etruscan shrew and the blue whale have in common? This is the question James Thomson, director of regenerative biology, has asked himself and it’s a question he intends on answering.

It takes nine months for a human to develop and three weeks for a mouse. It intuitively makes sense that big bodies take longer to grow than small bodies, but no one really knows how differences in developmental timing and growth are controlled across species. Dr. Thomson and his lab are deriving induced pluripotent stem cells from animals on the extreme ends of the body size spectrum to pinpoint the mechanisms behind cell timing. The outcomes of this research have the potential to provide a key answer to how regeneration works and will likely lead to insights on the aging process.

Dr. Thomson’s discoveries in human stem cell research at UW-Madison have redefined biomedicine, first with the isolation and culturing of human embryonic stem cells in 1998, then in the development of human pluripotent stem cells from adult skin cells in 2007. The discoveries led to two “Breakthrough of the Year” honors from the journal Science; cover-story coverage in Time magazine, which named him one of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People” in 2008; and receipt in 2011 of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, known as “America’s Nobel.”

So, what do the Etruscan shrew and the blue whale have in common? Dr. Thomson is thinking about it.

Ph.D. Molecular Biology, 1988, University of Pennsylvania

V.M.D. Veterinary Medicine, 1985, University of Pennsylvania

B.S. Biophysics (Summa cum laude), 1981, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

1999 : The isolation of human ES cells was cited by the journal Science in its “Scientific Breakthrough of the Year”
1999 : American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award
2001: Wilson S. Stone Memorial Award for Biomedical Research
2001: Hall of Fame Award for Scientific Achievement, Annual Conference of Biotechnology CEOs
2002: Lois Pope Award Annual LIFE International Research Award
2002: Elected to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters
2002 : World Technology Award, Health and Medicine
2003 : American College of Veterinary Pathologists, Outstanding Achievement Award
2003: Frank Annunzio Award (Science/Technology) sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Foundation
2005 : Distinguished Service Award for Enhancing Education through Biological Research. The National Association of Biology Teachers, Inc.
2005: Named in “Milestones of Science” poster. Science
2006 : Nathan R. Brewer Scientific Achievement Award, American Association for Laboratory Animal Science
2007: Brian D. Howell Excellence in Innovation Award, 2007: Best of Madison Business Awards, Madison, WI
2008 Elected to the National Academy of Sciences; Recipient of the Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize
2011: Co-Winner, King Faisal International Prize
2011 : Co-Winner, Albany Medical Prize
2013: McEwen Award for Innovation, The International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR)

Recent publications: 
Reproducibility across single-cell RNA-seq protocols for spatial ordering analysis. Seirup M, Chu LF, Sengupta S, Leng N, Browder H, Kapadia K, Shafer CM, Duffin B, Elwell AL, Bolin JM, Swanson S, Stewart R, Kendziorski C, Thomson JA, Bacher R.PLoS One. 2020 Sep 28;15(9):e0239711. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0239711. eCollection 2020.PMID: 32986734 Biologically Functionalized Expanded Polytetrafluoroethylene Blood Vessel Grafts. Wang D, Xu Y, Lin YJ, Yilmaz G, Zhang J, Schmidt G, Li Q, Thomson JA, Turng LS.Biomacromolecules. 2020 Sep 14;21(9):3807-3816. doi: 10.1021/acs.biomac.0c00897. Epub 2020 Aug 21.PMID: 32786520 Expanded Poly(tetrafluoroethylene) Blood Vessel Grafts with Embedded Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS)-Responsive Antithrombogenic Drug for Elimination of Thrombosis. Wang D, Xu Y, Wang L, Wang X, Ren C, Zhang B, Li Q, Thomson JA, Turng LS.ACS Appl Mater Interfaces. 2020 Jul 1;12(26):29844-29853. doi: 10.1021/acsami.0c07868. Epub 2020 Jun 18.PMID: 32496045
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