By Jordana Lenon
March 31, 2020
Gwen Plunkett recalls thinking, “He is so brilliant!” after she received a return phone call from Jamie Thomson shortly after his Science paper on successfully growing human embryonic stem cells came out in November 1998.
Thus began her close following of stem cell research progress in Wisconsin over the next two decades.
Gwen and her late husband Jim Plunkett, who was president of Plunkett Raysich Architects in Milwaukee, founded the Plunkett Family Foundation in 1990. The Plunketts have supported the performing arts, public TV and radio, nature conservancies, museums, service clubs, education and scientific research.
Their latest gift to research benefits the Musculoskeletal Research Program of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The SCRMC operates as part of the School of Medicine and Public Health and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.
Specifically, the family’s gift will support preclinical research on reprogramming mesenchymal stem cells into viable, safe cartilage for joint repair. Osteoarthritis has become a major health concern among people over 50, according to Wan-Ju Li, Ph.D., associate professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation and chair of the SCRMC Musculoskeletal Research Program. While hip and knee replacements work well for many, Li explained, they also come with a long list of potential risks and complications, including fracture during surgery, blood clots, dislocation and loosening.
“Rapid advances in stem cell and gene editing research mean that using a patient’s own stem cells to grow and transplant new cartilage may soon become a reality, with the University of Wisconsin–Madison on the forefront of such work,” he said. “ The Plunkett family’s gift is crucial to achieving our research goal to advance the knowledge of orthopedic regenerative medicine.”
In particular, the gift will be critical for initiating a new project focused on developing a large animal model to examine stem cell approaches for cartilage and bone repair, Li said.
“In addition to the potential of regenerative medicine for orthopedic applications,” he said, “we anticipate that the project will generate significant impact in other tissue regenerative medicine fields, such as blood, heart and nerve, by creating a translational animal model for research. Availability of such a model is crucial to the development of stem cell therapies for clinical applications. Because of the family’s generosity, it is now possible to fulfill these unmet needs.”
Gwen Plunkett said she was impressed that Li’s trainee Brian Walczak was recognized by the International Orthopaedic Research Society for his progress in growing cartilage for safe transplant. Out of a field of more than 2,000 submitted studies, Walczak’s abstract, Epigenetically reprogrammed synovial fluid-derived mesenchymal stem cells demonstrate enhanced therapeutic potential for treatment of chondral disease, was one of only 15 selected internationally to win a 2019 New Investigator Recognition Award and one of only two involving cartilage repair.
Walczak, assistant professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation, is a recipient of both a 2019 SCRMC training award and a UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research training award. He also recently received a postdoctoral training award from the UW–Madison Institute on Aging.
“To be able to function as both a surgeon and a basic scientific researcher is a remarkable opportunity and I am extremely grateful to the Plunketts for this gift, which will go a long way in supporting our continuing work here at UW–Madison,” Walczak said.
Gwen, who suffers from osteoarthritis, wanted to make a difference by supporting solid scientific research that’s getting results in this area. “There are a lot of dubious stem cell clinics out there that say they can help, but I’m skeptical that what they’re selling has not actually been proven to work and you also don’t know how safe their procedures really are.”
With a background in science herself, Gwen’s main interest is scientific research, first working in a lab and now as a donor to stem cell and regenerative medicine research. She is a benefactor and president of the Plunkett Family Foundation. She and her daughter Karen Plunkett visited Wan-Ju Li’s lab in April 2019. They had read research papers from the lab and they asked a lot of questions, both during a presentation by Li and afterwards on a tour of the lab and its associated imaging and animal facilities at WIMR. Karen, a licensed architect like her father, served as principal and designed health care facilities at Plunkett Raysich Architects. She began her career in investment banking in New York and currently focuses her energy on developing incubator space, mentoring and funding small businesses. She is a principal of the Angel Investment Network, Silicon Pastures and managing director of the Plunkett Foundation.
“I enjoyed spending time with Gwen and Karen and was so impressed by how much Gwen already knew about stem cell research and how interesting and challenging her questions were,” Wan-Ju said after their visit. “It’s not always the case where you get someone who is so interested in every detail of the science, the lab, the people, the animals involved in the preclinical research, everything.”
Li added that he will be providing the Plunketts with research updates semiannually and is very grateful for their interest in stem cell research at UW–Madison. This February, Li was also fortunate to start a collaboration with Stephen Duncan, chair of the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology at the Medical University of South Carolina. Li received transgenic mice from Duncan through his colleague Michele Battle, associate professor of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Li will use the mice to study a protein called GATA6, which regulates cell aging and is especially associated with skeletal aging.
There is a Plunkett connection there as well: When Duncan was at the Medical College of Wisconsin in the early 2000s, Gwen and Jim Plunkett donated to his stem cell research. Duncan remembers, “The work we were doing at the time was highly exploratory and realistically we couldn’t get support from the NIH. However, the gift from the Plunketts really allowed us to push our ideas forward. Ultimately, it has led to many breakthroughs and millions of dollars of support at the federal level.”
In addition to being part of scientific and medical progress, Gwen’s other lifelong passion is travel. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Vassar College in New York and then conducted medical and pharmaceutical research at the Medical College in Syracuse and at New York State University. “This was in the 1950s, when the medical colleges were about five percent women,” Gwen recalled. “This was a difficult time for women.” Yet she added enthusiastically, “Then I married Jim and we started traveling from the beginning. Over the next 55 years, we saw the world together and we learned so much!”
Photos for this story were provided by Wan-Ju Li, the Plunkett Family and Jordana Lenon.