June 23, 2024
Versiti makes huge impact on health care and Milwaukee’s economy
When Gabriella Flater was 8 years old, her father died of complications related to hemophilia.

Roughly 20 years later, the blood disorder resurfaced in Flater’s life when her newborn son, Titus, began having bleeding incidents. Unaware of the genetic nature of the disease, the family soon learned that Titus had inherited the same life-altering condition as her father.

Luckily, Titus was born at a time, and perhaps more importantly, in a place, where treatment advances could ensure he lived not just a long life, but an active one.

When Titus was still an infant, Flater and her family began working with doctors and researchers at Versiti’s Hemophilia Treatment Center in Wauwatosa. At just 8 months old, Titus had a port placed in his chest that allowed his parents to deliver the Factor VIII blood clotting protein that his body doesn’t make on its own.

Flater and her husband used to have to deliver the dose twice a week. But as part of Versiti’s work to improve treatment for the disease, the Richfield residents were able to enroll Titus, who turns 5 in June, into a study of a new clotting protein that he can take once weekly.

“Going down to just one dose a week is huge,” Flater said. “What kid likes to be poked? What parent likes to poke their child?”

The new treatment also has a longer half-life, which means less worrying between shots about a minor scrape or tumble turning into a race to the ER.

“Without the research that’s been done and medicine that’s been found, Titus would have excessive bleeding from any wounds, and he would have joint bleeds, which go unseen to the eye. And those could be caused by him just riding a bike, jumping off of a swing or the monkey bars – just being a boy,” Flater said. “It’s been wonderful that we are so close to Versiti.”

Founded in 1947 by the Junior League of Milwaukee, Versiti – then known as the Milwaukee Blood Center – began simply as an effort by local women to create a sustainable blood supply for residents in the city.

Versiti makes huge impact on health care and Milwaukee’s economy
Mike Janasik, the director of portfolio management for Versiti, donates platelets during a visit to Versiti’s blood donation center at its Wauwatosa campus. Janasik works with the 65 hospitals that Versiti serves via its blood services. The visit was his 138th donation.
Credit: Valerie Hill

In the years since, the organization has grown to not only become the chief provider of blood services to hospitals in the state, but an international leader in research, leading to discoveries that have helped increase the understanding of pernicious blood disorders – such as sickle cell anemia, von Willebrand Disease and leukemia – and treatment innovations that have helped dozens of patients, like Titus.

As those efforts have placed Milwaukee-based Versiti at the center of blood research in the United States, its blood services – the collection and distribution of donated blood to hospitals – has grown over the decades to include blood centers in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. Together, the five states under the Versiti umbrella make up the fifth-largest blood provider in the nation.

Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin, alone, provides more than 230,000 units, or pints, of blood and blood products annually to more than 56 hospitals in the state.

“What’s neat about Versiti is that Milwaukee is the headquarters for a reason,” said Chris Miskel, Versiti’s president and chief executive officer. “All of these service lines that existed (before the mergers with blood centers in other states) are part of what allowed Versiti to affiliate with these other blood centers, because there was strength in science and medicine. That strength then allowed leadership to bring in great work that was happening in other states that didn’t have components like the diagnostic lab, the organ procurement organization or the research institute.”

Growth with a purpose

In the past five years alone, Versiti has experienced the kind of growth more typical of a thriving Fortune 500 company or a meteoric upstart than a nonprofit. Between the end of 2018 and the end of 2023, the organization saw its total revenue increase by 45.6%, from $287 million to $418 million.

Much of that growth can be attributed to Versiti Clinical Trials, which acquired four distinct diagnostic laboratories during that time period: Texas-based Cenetron Central Laboratories and its subsidiary Salus IRB in 2019, and Indiana-based firms Quantigen and Pearl Pathways in 2023.

A rendering of the planned 79,000-square-foot addition to the Versiti Blood Research Institute at 8727 W. Watertown Plank Road on the campus of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.
A rendering of the planned 79,000-square-foot addition to the Versiti Blood Research Institute at 8727 W. Watertown Plank Road on the campus of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

As it works to strengthen its own research arm, the nonprofit is also on the cusp of breaking ground on a 79,000-square-foot, $79 million expansion of the Versiti Blood Research Institute at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa, which also includes Froedtert Hospital, Children’s Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Expected to break ground later this year, the project is being funded in part by $10 million in state funds. It will essentially double Versiti’s research capabilities, bringing the total number of researchers and staff working out of the VBRI from approximately 200 to more than 350.

And it’s working to broaden its outreach efforts, particularly in parts of Milwaukee most impacted by one of the main diseases it treats and studies: sickle cell anemia.

Sometime this spring or summer, Versiti will open a 3,500-square-foot community resource and permanent blood donation center at the ThriveOn King Collaborative, being developed in the former Gimbels and Schuster’s building on North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee.

All of these efforts drive toward one main goal, says Miskel. And that goal – or rather, mission – is to save lives.

“We always say, ‘Saving lives is our shared purpose and serving other people is our passion,’” Miskel said. “We grow so that we can reinvest in our core mission.”

Clinical trial services

These days, most of Versiti’s growth is occurring in the clinical trials space. In 2022, its diagnostic lab services generated roughly 17% of the organization’s total revenue. At the close of 2023, following the acquisition of the two Indiana firms, it grew to 22%, or roughly $91.9 million.

“We have a financial position that allows us to do smart acquisitions, but it really started with us asking: ‘Do we have a right to do this or not?’” Miskel said. “Our diagnostic lab operation, which is where we do most of our acquisitions, is probably the most differentiated thing that we do. What that means is that people who need that service highly value it. So, we’re able to build out Versiti Clinical Trials and then reinvest in other parts of our mission, like research.”

Although Versiti’s research efforts are primarily funded through grants from the federally funded National Institutes of Health, Miskel said the success that Versiti has in its other service lines, which include blood services, diagnostics, pharmacy and medical services – and its role as the chief organ procurement organization in the region – can support VBRI’s efforts by strengthening Versiti’s overall financial health.

Taken together, the firms that make up Versiti Clinical Trials offer a comprehensive suite of services, including blood products for research, central lab services, clinical trial logistics, custom assay development, or the development of analytic procedures, and Institutional Review Board services, which provide researchers with required regulatory oversight.

“We are supporting biotech and pharma companies that need specialty CRO (contract research organization) services,” Miskel said.

Much in the same way that a home builder might keep its own electricians, cabinet makers, and HVAC experts on staff, Versiti is building out its diagnostics arm to function as a one-stop shop for entities looking to perform clinical trials. And while the organization may not be the biggest provider of clinical trial services, Miskel says it has developed a fair amount of clients in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.

“There are really big contract organizations and really big central labs that you could probably find out there, and they have a definite need for certain customers,” he said. “But there is something to the nimbleness that each of these organizations had built before Versiti acquired them, and they kind of fit into a jigsaw puzzle with us where we are kind of building a critical mass in services.”

While it doesn’t provide patient enrollment in trials or bioanalytic services, the services Versiti does provide, such as regulatory support, can be attractive to smaller companies that may not have a sophisticated regulatory engine of their own, Miskel said.

“Maybe they are at phase two or three, and they are ready to interact with the FDA, or they are ready to submit something, that is what Pearl Pathways does,” he said.

A research magnet

If you want to get a sense of the expertise and passion of Versiti investigators, from its doctoral students to postdoctoral researchers and physician scientists, just visit any one of the labs at the Versiti Blood Research Institute.

On a recent Thursday, Anna Mozhenkova, a postdoctoral fellow who moved to Milwaukee to work in a lab run by investigator Prithu Sundd, Ph.D., was preparing membranes used to study protein expression in sickle cell anemia, while Tomasz Kaminski, Ph.D., a research scientist studying thrombosis and hemostasis in Sundd’s lab, raved about one of the high-tech microscopes at the VBRI.

Originally from Poland, Kaminski followed Sundd in September from his lab at the University of Pittsburgh to the VBRI to continue Sundd’s NIH-funded research into the role of thrombo-inflammation in blood diseases.

“We can look at real animals in real time. We can go down to 1.5 micrometers, and we can look at a single cell, like a macrophage, or whatever we want,” said Kaminski, standing next to the $1 million microscope. “The only limitation of this equipment is your imagination. When I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation 10 years ago, I was not even aware that a machine like this could be built. I am so in awe. This is why I am saying that ‘this is like my heart.’”

The Versiti Blood Research Institute’s $1 million multi-photon-excitation microscope (MPE) allows researchers to perform quantitative fluorescence intravital lung microscopy (qFILM).
The Versiti Blood Research Institute’s $1 million multi-photon-excitation microscope (MPE) allows researchers to perform quantitative fluorescence intravital lung microscopy (qFILM).
Credit: Valerie Hill

The excitement VBRI researchers have for the facility, their colleagues and their work is evident.

If you ask Dr. Michael Deininger, who holds both an M.D. and a doctoral degree and directs the VBRI as Versiti’s chief scientific officer, why he joined the organization after being recruited from the University of Utah, he will rattle off several reasons in the span of just a few minutes.

There’s Versiti’s reputation as a nationally recognized blood research institute, and the fact that the VBRI sits on the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center campus, where investigators can practice medicine at Froedtert Hospital or Children’s Wisconsin or teach at MCW. There’s also VBRI’s scope, its expanding footprint and research work, and its ongoing work to build its research teams in blood cancers and immunology.

The biggest draw for Deininger, however, is the entire Versiti organization, and its deep focus on blood. That focus, along with the nonprofit’s work to recruit even more researchers, is a big draw for scientists for whom hematology is a lifeblood.

“You have very few places where all of this comes together under one roof. So, there is a lot more synergy than we typically see between, say, blood clotting or vascular biology and leukemia research,” said Deininger, who is also the associate dean for research at MCW and an NIH-funded investigator. “I think we can develop these very unique connections and very unique angles to look at problems from different perspectives, and then use that synergy to make a difference.”

Versiti’s corporate headquarters at 638 N. 18th St. in Milwaukee. Situated near Marquette University, the building is home to all of the nonprofit’s corporate functions, as well as its Wisconsin-based blood services, diagnostic labs, organ and tissue procurement, Medical Sciences Institute leadership and pharmacy services.
Versiti’s corporate headquarters at 638 N. 18th St. in Milwaukee. Situated near Marquette University, the building is home to all of the nonprofit’s corporate functions, as well as its Wisconsin-based blood services, diagnostic labs, organ and tissue procurement, Medical Sciences Institute leadership and pharmacy services.

Economic engine

That focus on research and blood health doubles as an economic engine, drawing educated, well-paid scholars and scientists to the Milwaukee area.

Over the next 30 years, Versiti projects its VBRI expansion will have a total economic impact of $580 million and drive additional tax revenue of $19 million for the state.

Like most other lead investigators who come to Versiti to do their work, Deininger brought his leukemia-focused lab along with him. That doesn’t mean a box of Erlenmeyer flasks, but rather a small group of the scientists who were assisting him with his research. Today, his lab, which is studying ways to target leukemia cells and coax them into behaving normally, has three research and postdoctoral fellows and four technicians.

“It’s awesome,” Miskel said of VBRI’s draw. “If you just step back and look at the last 12 months, we’ve brought five scientists into this building: two from Pittsburgh, one from Oklahoma, one from Florida, and one that is coming from Memphis. (The lead investigators) are coming with their families, and they are probably bringing some members of their labs and we’ll hire to fill the rest of the positions. So, it is an economic engine, but it’s also a human health engine.”

Collaboration focused

One of the results of building out the VBRI’s research staff is how it impacts what Miskel calls “critical mass” within the organization – the knowledge base that Versiti as well as the other institutions at the MRMC have access to.

To Dr. Roy Silverstein, a professor and chair emeritus in MCW’s department of medicine, the combination of Versiti’s blood services and research – coupled with its relationships between Froedtert Hospital and MCW – are the ingredients of the secret sauce that makes Versiti such a powerful force in blood disorder treatment and research.

“I think the VBRI’s success is being located on the medical school campus because it really allows the two organizations to leverage each other’s strengths so that they can both be better,” said Silverstein, who is a medical scientist and retired hematologist. “Ph.D. students and M.D./Ph.D. students do their research in the VBRI, and investigators of the VBRI all are full-time faculty of the Medical College, except they’re employed by Versiti. And so, in many ways, it almost looks like a department of the medical school, except it’s a separate corporate entity with separate governance. So, it really is very synergistic.”

That link will soon extend to the institutions’ built environments with an above-ground connection to be constructed between the VBRI’s expanded footprint, which will be complete sometime in 2026, and MCW’s new Cancer Research Building, which will be done next year.

That physical connection should only build upon the ongoing collaboration between scientists with the four organizations at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center (Froedtert, Medical College of Wisconsin, Children’s and Versiti), said Silverstein, who, alongside his colleagues, studies how blood platelets and macrophages react to a chronic inflammatory state.

“It’s really important for Milwaukeeans to understand that there’s not a single scientist with crazy white hair and a white coat doing this work. It is a community of people that are interacting with each other all the time,” he said. “Research is a very social activity.”

Organ procurement

Collaboration extends outside the labs of the VBRI, with Versiti’s work as one of only two organ procurement organizations in the state. Based out of Versiti’s corporate headquarters at 638 N. 18th St. in Milwaukee, the OPO operates as the intermediary between a donor hospital and family and the transplant center, providing necessary testing services before and after transplants take place.

They also provide critical organ matching services, according to Dr. Matthew Cooper, chief of transplantation and director of solid organ transplant at Froedtert Hospital.

“They have a histocompatibility lab that allows us to match donors and recipients. So, when an individual has an organ offered to them, there is a matching process and we need the services of Versiti and their HLA lab to do that,” said Cooper, who also serves as a professor of surgery at MCW. “I can only imagine the numbers of samples that are traveling up and down Wisconsin Avenue for testing.”

In a given week, Froedtert works with the Versiti OPO to do between five and eight transplants.

“And this is not just a kidney transplant program. We do kidney, pancreas, liver, heart and lung transplants. We’re a busy transplant program, and we’re growing by leaps and bounds,” Cooper said, adding that Versiti’s work as an OPO on top of being a blood services provider and research institute is incredibly rare.

“I don’t know of any other OPO that’s part of a combined blood center, other than Versiti,” he said.

Community impact

While scholarship and recognition in and of itself may be rewarding, the efforts scientists at the VBRI, and across the MRMC, are most proud of are those having a real-life impact on patients struggling with blood disorders.

While a new organ can give a dying patient a new lease on life, Deininger and Silverstein see a day when Versiti’s decades of research and new technological approaches will someday result in widely available cures.

To Deininger, efforts to increase the study of sickle cell anemia – a disease that, in Wisconsin, predominantly impacts African Americans, most of whom live in Milwaukee – is of supreme importance. Part of that work includes Versiti playing a more active role in the communities where people with sickle cell anemia and their families live.

A rendering of the 3,500-square-foot community resource and permanent blood donation center that Versiti is opening at the ThriveOn King Collaborative on Milwaukee’s north side.
A rendering of the 3,500-square-foot community resource and permanent blood donation center that Versiti is opening at the ThriveOn King Collaborative on Milwaukee’s north side.

The establishment of a permanent blood donation center at the ThriveOn King Collaborative is part of that effort. But it also includes putting a greater focus on researching and treating the disease.

“We have, I think, extremely good scientists working on this, and we brought them in to essentially create a trans-campus sickle cell initiative,” Deininger said. “I think there is a real opportunity, if not a mandate here to do that.”

To Silverstein, scientists working today, especially at the VBRI, are living in a privileged period of history when the research of the past 40 to 50 years – thanks in part to advances in technology – is starting to bear fruit.

“I had a friend in grade school who died of sickle cell in eighth grade. We didn’t know what the heck was going on, but he didn’t show up for school one day,” he said. “And now, we actually have ways to cure the disease.

“It’s really, for a hematologist, an amazing story.”

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