LIKE TOUCHING TOMORROW… 8th Annual World Stem Cell Summit
By Don C. Reed
The just-concluded World Stem Cell Summit, December 3-5, left advocates excited, revitalized, updated—and cheerful!
It might seem odd that the battle against chronic disease, the most terrifying enemy in the history of the world, could sometimes be fun. Chronic disease touches every household. With an estimated 100 million Americans (one in three) suffering an incurable disease or disability—at a financial cost exceeding the annual instalment of the national debt—everyone is affected.
But those who take on this incredible challenge can be some of some of the warmest personalities you could imagine.
Like Bernie Siegel. Organizer of the World Stem Cell Summit, Bernie reminds me of the story of the argument between the Sun and Winter as to who was stronger? Old Man Winter pointed to a man and said, “I will make him take off his jacket”, and blasted him with icy winds. But the man clutched his jacket tighter. The Sun merely smiled, and the man grinned back, and took off his jacket.
That’s Bernie Siegel’s approach to life in general, and the Summit in particular. Inclusion is key to the efforts of the Executive Director of Genetics Policy Institute; he makes everyone welcome at the World Stem Cell Summit. It looks easy when he does it, but he works all year to make these three days welcoming and successful.
This is the premier event of our field, of the movement to empower patients, patient-advocates, scientists, scholars, lawyers and lawmakers—working together for cure.
More than “just” our bodies’ health; biomed is the economy’s well-being, and the two intertwine —as one panel showed—“Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine as an Engine for Economic Growth”—in Ballroom B.
In that one panel were: Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the Board of the California stem cell program, Frank Stonebanks, of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Glyn Stacey of the UK Stem Cell Bank; and Elona Baum, of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine– you could build a convention around just those four!
As Gloria Reed, my wife of 43 years said to me: “We really needed another day to see it all!” (not to mention a separate suitcase to pack all the free stuff).
Walking up and down the aisles of the new industry was a burst of adrenaline—here were people staking their business lives on the success of the battle against cronic disease. When scientists succeed in a lab, the next step may be a new business to bring that success to patients in need. Little surprises everywhere—free totebags, quality publications, even a jar of gray and green candies labeled with an alleged joke: “We just hired a molecular biologist. Man, is he small!” Next door to the candy source, biotech’s AKRONBIO, was Liebert Publications, medical reporting, probably the most widely read such publications in the world.
Half an auditorium was devoted to new posters of research from all around the planet.
Everywhere was synergy, everyone benefiting from everybody else.
For me the highlight was Bob Klein’s speech on new ways to fund regenerative medicine. Bob is the inspirational leader of Prop 71, which became the $6 billion California stem cell program, and his keynote address was so jam-packed I will do a separate article on it.
Issues, arguments, and controversies were aired.
For instance, which is more promising, human embryonic stem cells (HESC) or Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (IPSC)? One is made from throwaway blastocysts left over from the In Vitro Fertilization procedure; the other is made by reprogramming some of the patients’ own cells. The Religious Right tries to shoot down one by advancing the other—but is that the best way to find cures?
Anyone who attended stem cell pioneer Jeanne Loring’s panel saw presentations on the strengths of both approaches, each with value, neither excluding the other. And where did the panelists come from? Loring– Scripps Research Institute; Gary Smith, the University of Michigan; Outi Hovatta, Karolinska Institute, and Timothy J. Kamp of the University of Wisconsin Medical School—internationally esteemed institutions.
(My non-scientist’s opinion is that embryonic will be more powerful—and faster and cheaper—for the purpose of transplanting body tissues and organs; but the reprogrammed cells will be invaluable for drug-testing and disease models.)
A controversial panel inveighed on “Unproven Stem Cell Therapies and Deceptive Claims: hidden dangers to Patients”: stem cell tourism. A desperate patient might consider going to a small country where there are few if any medical regulations. There the owners might open your body and put in something, maybe not even stem cells. One “stem cell clinic” did spinal cord surgery with the patients lying on none-too-clean-looking beds, like a third-rate hotel!
Ann Tsukamoto of Stem Cells Inc., moderated that panel, ably assisted by Doug Sipp, Riken Center for Developmental Biology, James Guest, illustrious spinal cord expert from U of M—and Allan Wu of the Morrow Institute.
Wu brought the house down with a gross-out story: a would-be stem cell tourist kept saying a potential transplant was guaranteed harmless because it was autologous— taken from the patient’s own body—“It’s autologous, it’s autologous!”, he said.
Finally Dr. Wu said, “I could put a STOOL SAMPLE into your brain, and that would be autologous too—but would that make it safe?”
Experts were everywhere, on the platform and in the audience: 175 speakers and attendees from 41 nations.
The dangerous lawsuit, Sherley v. Sebelius, was updated by Attorney Beth E. Roxland. Ms. Roxland performed the seemingly impossible task of making the case interesting. Sherlev v. Sebelius is for me the very essence of a frivolous lawsuit. Two religious-minded researchers are suing America, trying to shut down government support of embryonic stem cell research, because they claim it is economic competition for them and their preferred method of adult stem cell research.
Attorney Roxland concluded by saying the court case will either go forward to the United States Supreme Court—or not—before January 4th. The articulate Roxland has a deep interest in the legal/ethical aspects of the biomedical field, AND she can describe it in exciting, understandable terms—can somebody please hurry up and offer her a job in California? (I’m serious! Contact her at www.linkedin.com/in/bethroxland for more info.)
The National Institutes of Health, the crown jewels of American medical research, sent Joshua Hunsberger to describe the NIH’s new Center for Regenerative Medicine.
The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine was ably represented by Dr. Dalton Dietrich of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, who made an impassioned defense of Schwann cells, as a way to alleviate spinal cord injury paralysis. Dr. Dietrich announced they had commenced a Stage One (safety) clinical trial.
And for those of us who view government as a necessary part of the solution, Bernie Siegel chaired the panel “Stem Cell Politics: the Post-Election Advocacy Agenda”.
(CIRM’s own Kevin McCormack did an excellent piece on the panel, seeable at: https://cirmresearch.blogspot.com/2012/12/if-they-feel-heat-they-see-light-role.html
As Bernie put it, “stem cells are not a Democrat or Republican issue, they are a human issue, and we need to put aside political partisan issues and work together on this.”
Amy Comstock Rick, chair of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, discussed why Congress is not immediately going forward with another Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, like those which passed Congress in 2005 and 2007 before being vetoed by then-President George Bush. In her view, the Senate and House won’t push legislation until they see how Sherley v. Sebelius pans out. Ms. Rick is a fighter par excellence both for CAMR and Parkinson’s Action Network.
Paul Knoepfler, America’s only blogging stem cell scientist took the audience on a leaping tour through vital national science issues: because National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding is level (static) or down, some 90% of grants are not getting funded—and embryonic stem cell research funding is still decreasing, for political reasons, not scientific. Paul has a white paper on stem cells that has been translated into 22 languages….
Then it was my turn, to speak on state issues– a thousand things I wanted to say, and ten minutes to say them in.
Scientists need three things: freedom, funding, and friends.
Freedom: people in this audience had been part of the epic struggles for research freedom in Michigan (Proposal 2) and Missouri (Amendment 2); there we battled for the rights of research, and won. In California, we passed the first stem cell freedom bill in the country, AB 253 (Ortiz) to officially legalize embryonic stem cell research—but the freedom to research came with no money.
Funding: only a handful of states have stem cell research funding programs now—New Jersey, California, Maryland, New York, Connecticut and Illinois—pathetically few, compared to the need. Every state in the country should have a biomed funding program—do we not all struggle with chronic disease and disability?
And friends? I wish I could report that stem cell research was equally backed by both our major political parties. But sadly that is not the case right now.
If you want to really understand the difference between the two parties on this issue, look up the votes on HR 3, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 and 2007. One statistic tells it all. In the House of Representatives there were 16 Democratic opponents–and 158 Republicans who voted against the research—almost ten times the opposition.
One of our Summit attendees was new Representative Patrick Murphy (D), who had run against incumbent Allen West (R). The Democrat supported advanced stem cell research; the Republican did not. But when the votes were counted (and re-counted) the supporter of stem cell research prevailed.
So much! At a special awards dinner, Florida’s own Sabrina Cohen received the GPI’s Stem Cell Action “Inspiration” Award. A very creative advocate, Sabrina sometimes has audiences remain motionless for sixty seconds, for a hint what it is like to be paralyzed.
Susan Solomon CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation received the Leadership Award for helping to “catapult NYSCF into a research juggernaut, raising approximately $100 million in the quest for cures”.
SIXTY MINUTES won the “Media Integrity” Award for their important TV series on stem cell rip-offs.
The hard-working Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM) received the National Advocacy Award.
And the Nebraska Coalition for Lifesaving Cures won the Public Outreach and Education Award for “supporting the efforts…of Nebraska-based medical researchers, science educators, and young collegiate scientists.”—“GPI Stem Cell Action Award Honorees include CBS “60 Minutes and NYSCF’s Susan Solomon”, PR Newswire, 12/7/2012
As I walked backward out of the Grand Ballroom of the West Palm Beach Convention Center, dragged away by the remorseless schedule of the airplane ticket, the last thing I saw was an onscreen video of Christopher “Superman” Reeve talking about another wheelchair warrior, Danny Heumann, a motivational speaker. Patient advocates like Danny are the emotional muscle behind the biomedical revolution. The scientists are often reluctant to speak for themselves, and are sometimes hard to understand. Biomed businessfolk might be discounted because they are (as they should be!) selling something. But patient advocates embody the struggle for cure– and people listen.
Want to hear more? Check out the website, which includes keynote speeches (free!) from men and women who are changing the world through science for the public good.
Above all, mark your calendar for next year.
In 2013, December 4-6, the World Stem Cell Summit will be held in San Diego, California, the heart of the biomed and stem cell research community. It will be an epic event, and you do not want to miss it.
It will be like touching tomorrow.