Monday, December 3, 2012

World Stem Cell Summit kicks off: opportunities and threats to the research

A packed crowd at the World Stem Cell Summit keynote address.
The World Stem Cell Summit is taking place right now in West Palm Beach Florida, bringing together scientists and patient advocates to discuss the future of stem cell research. We'll be posting updates throughout the meeting.

The World Stem Cell Summit began in West Palm Beach this morning with a fascinating keynote address by George Daley, MD, PhD of Children's Hospital Boston. He decided to do a SWOT analysis of the field of stem cell research. For those of you, like me, who skipped statistics at school, this is a structured method to measure the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (hence SWOT) of a project.

In this case Dr. Daley said the Strength of stem cell research is that it is exciting science and has enormous potential for leading to therapies and cures.

The Weaknesses are that we have a limited understanding of how stem cells, particularly adult stem cells, work. We know a lot about them but there's so much crucial information we don't have - such as how do we consistently guide stem cells into changing into the kind of cell or tissue we want. He also pointed out that, as yet, we don't have a business model for how to deliver these cell therapies to patients

When it comes to Opportunities he highlighted a number of areas where we are already doing exciting work that is showing evidence of paying off. For instance with induced pluripotent or iPS cells, we have been able to use these to create "disease in a dish" models, turning the cells into the kind of cell found in patients with deadly diseases, then using those cells to better understand the disease and even to test what drugs might work against it. He pointed to encouraging advances in treatment of vision problems, spinal cord injury and Parkinson's disease. He cautioned that he is not talking about cures, but about small advances, benefits that while not helping someone in a wheelchair get up and walk, will help improve the quality of their life

The Threats are something we at the stem cell agency have been talking about for some time, the unproven and premature use of therapies in patients. This can be either overseas as part of the "stem cell tourism" issue, or in the US with clinics and individuals offering treatments that are not proven and may not be safe. These providers typically attract customers by magnifying the benefits and trivializing the risks.

Having done his analysis Dr. Daley said as much as we would like to say otherwise, right now the only proven stem cell therapies are for blood indications, such as bone marrow transplants and he said that in order to protect people we need to "prohibit the direct marketing of unproven therapies."

But despite the threats and problems he remains optimistic. He said we are seeing a remarkable increase in the number of stem cell therapies heading into or that are already in clinical trials, in the US and globally. And he ended by posing a single questions: Can the objectives we have set ourselves be met? And he answered with a resounding YES.

A promising start to what looks like being a fascinating couple of days.

K.M.

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