Of salamanders and men
My past came back to haunt me today. I was an eager attendee of the 2006 International Symposium: Stem Cell Symposium, which was organized by the Women?s Technology Cluster, a business incubator in San Francisco. I had no idea that salamanders would enter the discussions of differentiation and deals. But, as fate would have it, the amphibious creatures served as prime evidence of the possibilities and potential of regenerative medicine.
My past came back to haunt me today. I was an eager attendee of the 2006 International Symposium: Stem Cell Symposium, which was organized by the Women?s Technology Cluster, a business incubator in San Francisco. I had no idea that salamanders would enter the discussions of differentiation and deals. But, as fate would have it, the amphibious creatures served as prime evidence of the possibilities and potential of regenerative medicine. These are the same animals that my friend in fourth grade, Christine, decided to steal from the science lab. She told me that she had brought the two salamanders from home. Young and innocent, I actually believed her. Had I been less gullible I would have immediately reported the theft before she had the chance to handle them roughly: they soon became ill.
On the other hand, the heavy burden of guilt now feels somewhat lighter. The luncheon keynote speaker, Susan Bryant, dean of biological sciences at the University of California, Irvine, talked about her research on salamanders, a vertebrate particularly noted for its regenerative capacity. In fact, salamanders can regenerate every one of its body parts. ?As long as it doesn?t kill them,? Bryant said, you can amputate the body part and witness the miracle of regeneration. Perhaps Christine?s two little victims could have recovered unscathed once rescued from her clutches.
Alas, ?evolution has dealt us a cruel blow,? said Nadia Rosenthal of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Rome, pointing out that mammals do not have the regenerative capacity as salamanders and other evolutionary precursors. Turning back the evolutionary clock, however, may involve more than just smart science. Succeeding in stem cell research and using it for medical treatments will also require a good dose of politics and confronting the many social, moral and ethical issues, particularly in the U.S.
In the meantime, researchers in Europe and Asia are making major progress. And that?s causing some anxiety for San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and others who are concerned about catching the wave of economic opportunity. As the U.S. loses premier talent such as Roger Pedersen, it?s awakening Americans to the fact that they ?need to be more competitive,? Newsom said, encouraging start-up biotech companies to make San Francisco their home.
The dearth of federal funding makes private funding all the more important. That was evident with the number of venture capitalists and attorneys at the conference. Even the X PRIZE Foundation, the group that awarded $10 million to a private company for space travel, showed up to promote its idea for a stem cell research prize. ?When you set up a prize, then you?re saying it?s possible,? said Peter Diamandis, chairman, founder and president of the foundation. ?We?re awarding for innovation and risk to drive people across boundaries.?
State initiatives, such as California?s proposition 71, may also be supplying the necessary fuel to keep stem cell research going and in the US. Otherwise, as Roger Pedersen said in a real-time video feed from his labs in London, ?all the employees in my lab would have ceased to have a career,? explaining his decision to leave the University of California, San Francisco for Cambridge. ?It was a good business decision for funding in my lab.?
Working with stem cells in the U.K. isn?t a walk in the park, either. When I asked him about the type of governmental restrictions he faced in the U.K., I expected an answer detailing a laissez-faire policy. The fact is, ?the U.K. environment is highly restricted,? Pedersen said, describing the extensive regulatory procedures. ?It?s not the Wild West, and that?s why the people of the U.K. support the research.?
However, all is not completely well in the European Union, said Emmie van Halder-Eicher, director and co-founder of TaskForce Europe, located at the Hague in the Netherlands. Seven member countries currently lack rules and laws surrounding stem cell research, ?which is more dangerous to the EU,? she said. Unethical practices or falsification of data could result. These possibilities could also materialize if intellectual property laws aren?t modified to allow companies to safely publicize their research. She also talked about the advantages of allowing the academic researchers to own their discoveries. In Sweden, such policies have spawned many companies that are making major progress toward stem cell therapies.
For researchers without government backing, the private sector is one of the few financial resources available. Panelist Anula Jayasuriya, founding partner of Draper Fisher Jurvetson Life Sciences India explained what kinds of factors venture capitalists consider before signing the check:
1. Novelty ? Is the company developing a disruptive technology?
2. Need ? Does the potential product serve a great medical need?
3. Naysayer ? Is there any evidence that might provide a hint of potential success?
4. Not yours ? Will there be intellectual property as a result?
5. Now ? Will the company have a marketable product within seven years?
6. No more ? Is there a workable exit strategy?
While she tries to look at the potential risks involved, Jayasuriya emphasized that foreseeing the biggest risks ? future legal decisions, legislative acts and ethical environments ? generates the most anxiety.
All involved face these and other challenges. Panelist Janet Rossant, deputy scientific director of the Canadian Stem Cell Network, summed up the challenges with the following points:
? Developing a clear ethical and legal framework for all stem cell research and applications
? Moving forward in a federally-funded way
? Understanding, controlling and directing differentiation
? Creating good preclinical models
? Scaling up from the petri dish
? Designing appropriate clinical protocols for transplantation