Project Milwaukee: Innovation in Medical Research Flourishes

Mar 15, 2016

Doctors entering the Harriet L. Cramer Memorial Building housing the Marquette University School of Medicine. The School of Medicine was renamed the Wisconsin College of Medicine in 1970.
Credit Medical College of Wisconsin

Researchers in Milwaukee have been innovating the way medicine is practiced for decades. After years of being on the leading edge of biomedical discovery, how are those in Milwaukee’s medical field competing now?

Our look at innovation in the biomedical field leads us to this address: 10000 Innovation Drive, the site of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Research Park Center. MCW chief historian Dick Katschke says that’s an appropriate location. The Medical College of Wisconsin does about $200 million worth of funded research every year. Right now, about 3,000 studies are underway.

“To put it in perspective, we do more research here than places like University of Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Tufts, Dartmouth, Tulane, some of these impressive institutions you’ve heard of nationwide. We here in Milwaukee are even doing more research than those institutions are, and as a result, there have been a number of discoveries that have come out of the Medical College of Wisconsin that have really changed medicine as it’s practiced -- not only here in the United States, but worldwide," Katschke says.

Among other things, researchers in Milwaukee are known for:

  • Developing scuba gear in the 1930s to prevent decompression sickness in the Navy
  • Creating a blood test in the 1970s to detect lead poisoning
  • Identifying the genes that cause color blindness in the 1990s
  • Inventing the Milwaukee Brace for the treatment of scoliosis
  • Coming up with the Milwaukee Protocol for treating rabies

Medical College of Wisconsin researchers are innovating the way medicine is practiced around the world.
Credit Medical College of Wisconsin

“We were the first to document Lyme disease in a patient. We were the ones who identified that hemophiliacs were coming down with HIV because of blood transfusion products that they were receiving. One of the things you may have heard of, is in women, 'pears' and 'apple' shapes, and we were the ones that identified what your health risks are if you are pear-shaped or if you are apple-shaped. So that whole concept came out of the Medical College of Wisconsin," Katschke says.

And, MCW has one of the few vehicle crash test labs in the nation. "We were the ones who developed the side impact air bags that are in your cars today, and we are the ones who help the federal government write the standards for side impact air bag," Katschke says.

But those innovations are in the past. What’s in the future? Dr. Carol Williams is co-director of the Cancer Biology Program at the MCW Cancer Center. She says it’s studying something pretty exciting.

“We’re investigating how we can repurpose drugs that are already FDA-approved for other diseases, diseases other than cancer, and use them for treating cancer," Williams says.

And Williams says her team has made a promising discovery. Beta blockers, those relatively inexpensive and readily available medications used to treat cardiovascular disease and anxiety, may keep breast cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. If Williams’ research, which is in its very early stages, pans out, she says it could revolutionize how breast cancer is treated. And because it involves beta blockers, the news gets better.

“Because we already have FDA-approved drugs that we could use. That shaves off millions of dollars needed for the research and development of a new drug, and it also shaves off the many years that are required for clinical trials to see if a new drug is safe, and see if it’s going to have the observed effects," Williams says.

Children's Hospital of Wisconsin has a state of the art Neonatal Intensive Care unit that is ranked among the best in the nation.
Credit Children's Hospital of Wisconsin

But medical innovations aren’t exclusively the domain of MCW. Just down the street at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, there’s a state of the art neonatal intensive care unit. It’s ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, ranked the best in the nation in 2013 by Parents magazine, and it made the cover of Time magazine in 2014 for its breathtaking advancements in the care of premature babies. Dr. Michael Uhing is the medical director of neonatology at Children’s. He says too many of his tiny patients struggle with high blood pressure in their lungs. Pulmonary hypertension can be fatal. Researchers at Children’s Hospital are among a handful in the country trying to figure out how to treat and even prevent it.

“So we have a whole team that looks at what causes that high blood pressure in the lungs, what’s the genetics behind it, because it seems to be some people that are susceptible and some people that are not. And we’re also partnering with UW-Milwaukee – their engineering – looking at just skin probes that we can put on, to look at oxidative stress in the lungs just without drawing blood, without causing pain, just directly through the skin. So it’s a whole group of studies looking at how do we treat the lungs of premature babies and full-term babies that have this high blood pressure in lungs," Uhing says.

So why is it that when so many other southeast Wisconsin industries are struggling to face the future, the biomedical field is a hub of discovery? Doctors and researchers agree: it's because everyone here is willing to share their time, knowledge, and resources freely. Dr. Uhing says that’s absolutely true at Children’s.

“We have such collaboration between the surgeons, the cardiologists, the endocrinologists. I don’t know if it’s just Midwestern values…we all get along! I love talking to them! There’s not a lot of conflict. And when you have that collaboration, you’re able to do things," Uhing says.

Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Credit Medical College of Wisconsin

And that spirit of collaboration is what's driving the future of medical innovation in Milwaukee. MCW’s Dick Katschke says the federal government has given MCW a grant to study how to more quickly get important discoveries out of the lab and into a patient’s hands. MCW isn’t doing the work alone.

"The Medical College of Wisconsin is the holder of the grant, but we are participating with UWM, Marquette University, MSOE, the VA Medical Center, Froedtert Hospital, Children’s Hospital, and the Blood Center, as well, where we all are working together, and what we’ve really created is a 'mega-university' in Milwaukee," Katschke says.

The federal government has asked other research institutions across the country to watch how Milwaukee gets things done, and to follow its collaborative example in their own cities.