This is the second of a series of posts from Vancouver high school students who attended the ISSCR conference after winning an essay contest sponsored by the Stem Cell Network, ISSCR and Let’s Talk Science. The contest was organized by Vancouver StemCellTalks. Congratulations to the five winners: Lauren Dobischok, Tanner Jones, Mindy Lin, Vivian Tsang, and Michelle Tse.
Post by Lauren Dobischok
The first day of the 12th annual ISSCR meeting in Vancouver marked the beginning of a meeting of minds focused on a common goal: to advance the rapidly changing field of stem cell research and therapies. As scientists took to the stage to relay cutting edge research to colleagues and peers, a common theme emerged: As research progresses into possible applications in humans, the push to translate new therapies from “bench to bedside” has become one of the foremost issues the field is facing.
However, my experience at ISSCR began before the conference started. The night before, a free public outreach event titled “The Real Deal on Stem Cells” was hosted at Science World, presented by the Stem Cell Network and Centre of Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM). It was here that an expert panel of researcher Dr. Kelly McNagny, investor Greg Bonfiglio, health law expert Timothy Caulfield, and patient advocate Jennifer Molson discussed both the basics of stem cells and the obstacles that the field is facing. It became evident that despite the vast scope of research being conducted in the field of regenerative medicine, there are common challenges all compartments of stem cell research must contend with: The challenges researchers face with locating funding to conduct expensive studies with limited or delayed payout, and public pressure to come forward with proven, effective, “miracle” therapies. Since many therapies are not immediately valuable, they are high risk for investors and may rely on philanthropy to provide funding, not a significant driving force to bring these therapies to the clinic.
Despite stem cells being a field with so much potential for growth, Bonfiglio reported eight in ten new biotechnology businesses fail, as well as sobering statistics on how the past economic slump and how the translational science approval process is likened to a “valley of death” that threatens to stall the progression of stem cell science. This absence of new, concrete therapies leaves a desperate public to seek unproven therapies abroad at the cost of thousands of dollars and potentially their life. The “Real Deal” on Stem Cells raised questions about complex issues in regenerative medicine and set the tone for the rest of my conference experience.
As the main conference got underway with a series of focus sessions, I attended “Tools for Basic and Applied Stem Cell Biology”, featuring six speakers and a subsequent interactive panel in which the audience could ask questions. The talk that stood out most to me was Stefan Irion’s “The unpaved road – from academic to translational research”, which highlighted steps to take when moving the stem cell into the clinic. Like the talks from the night before, Irion mentioned the “valley of death” in biotechnology development and how cell products are atypical to an average drug in terms of gaining FDA approval – they are not a one size fits all product in ways more traditional therapies might be. Irion ended his talk with eight steps to achieve elusive FDA approval: easier said than done. When asked whether he thinks the translational challenges stem cell research faces will lessen in the future, Irion stated that as public pressure for new therapies increase, over time the situation will gradually improve as the economy and our knowledge of stem cell biology increases.
The second half of the focus session’s panel of speakers also discussed challenges that limit their own research from translating into the clinic. Common themes included locating an ideal cell source with universal donor types, time constraints, determining methods of cell delivery throughout large tissues and into multiple muscles, and regulation. As each scientist from differing fields shared their personal hindrances in research, I realized that these themes were common and just a few of the hurdles stem cell science as a whole must face. Some are a matter of resources, like funding and time, while others are more convoluted, such as ethical issues and physiological limitations, like the leap between testing on animals to real patients. The admission and discussion of these barriers at the ISSCR was valuable conversation that needed to be had – acceptance of these challenges promotes the practice of good science that aims to work through difficulties instead of simply glazing them over with hype not backed by real data.
As the field of stem cells accelerates at a break neck pace, I feel optimism for the future is appropriate, although the magic Key To Immortality and Beauty using stem cells has not yet been uncovered despite what a magazine ad may report. The cutting edge advances made that are being presented at the ISSCR and beyond are just a few examples of the great research that is happening, defying many of the obstacles that inherently exist in the field. Ideas we see presented today at the ISSCR are what will become the groundbreaking clinical therapies of tomorrow, which is truly a cause for celebration.
I also made a Storify of the top tweet’s from day 1 of ISSCR: