Tuesday, May 08, 2007

BioLaw at BIO 2007: Cells Are The New Pills


Three BIOs ago, in San Francisco, I happened upon a low-key, pre-dinner presentation on stem cells. Moderated by Charlie Rose, four Nobel Prize winners sat on a low dais and expressed an unexpectedly uniform and strong opinion: stem cells were going to remake biology and medicine, and they would do so in the astoundingly brief period of a decade or two. Despite being hungry, sleepy, and eager to move on to the evening's social events after a long day of complicated, technical lectures, delivered in dark rooms at the Moscone Convention Center, the enthusiasm of the speakers for stem cell technology infected even this toughest of crowds.

This year BIO has devoted an entire "track" of sessions to stem cells (officially spun here as "Regenerative Medicine"). I just attended the first of these: "Current Affairs In U.S. Stem Cell Research". It was dynamite. Where three short years ago, the distinguished elder gentlemen of biology were predicting the great potential of stem cells, today four leading stem cell biologists shared not only their views of the future, but, more remarkably, their data, clinical models, product pipelines, and already delivered therapies. Lawrence Goldstein (UCSD Stem Cell Progam) discussed his research on using stem neural cells to understand Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's diseases. Thomas Okarma (CEO, Geron Corporation) reflected on his quarter century in stem cell research, and detailed Geron's clinical trials on the use of stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries. He also stressed the particular promise of human mesochymal stem cells. Mark Hedrick (President, Cytori) outlined his company's approach to strengthening heart muscle damaged by myocardial infarction by injecting stem cells into precise regions of underperforming heart tissue, and then showed a short film of the procedure being used in the O.R.. Joseph Panetta (President and CEO, BIOCOM) then discussed possible connections between stem cells and the cellular origins of cancers, suggesting that such a connection can be useful not only in studying the etiology of cancers, but also in treating such cancers once they arise.

The participants made a number of remarkable pronouncements about present and future of stem cell technology. As at BIO 2004, great optimism was the rule. Goldstein remarked that "This is the technology that is going to let us harvest human genomics", and that "[Just as genetic engineering had done at the advent of of the biotechnology revolution], stem cell technology may change the way we do everything." Okarma predicted that "At first, the improvements will be incremental. Be patient. In the long run this is going to be the revolution we all hoped for."

The participants did, however, mention roadblocks to stem cell therapies. Panetta lamented the adverse effect that the WARF (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) stem cell patents have had in impeding and discouraging the development of stem cell therapies, but did rejoice at a recent rejection of the validity of three key WARF patents by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Goldstein described current NIH funding as "a disaster gathering speed", while Okarma complained that "This country has really harmed the rate at which the bigness [of stem cell technology] will happen."

It was Panetta who best captured the Zeitgeist here at BIO 2007, in waxing that "The 21st Century is the century of the cell." With such immense scientific progress in only three years, as well as new legal and policy initiatives by such states as Missouri, Massachusetts, and California to the ensure the legality of embryonic stem cell research, his prediction has some basis.

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