Nestled in the bosom of the Canadian Rockies, the global regenerative medicine community is assembled. Coaches laden with young investigators sporting impractically packed posters and drawn, jet lagged expressions are arriving in a steady procession. The usually sleepy pre-ski-season Banff is energized by stellar stem cell science and the expectation of its translation into patient benefit. And reminders of the urgent need for these health care outcomes are plentiful.
Anyone arriving into Calgary airport will note the needle disposal containers in bathrooms for insulin users, defibrillators are strapped to pillars around luggage carousels and goliath advertisements for assisted living services for the elderly punctuate the highway. These needs fuel industry expectation. However, is our vision of stem cell translation appropriately aligned with the needs of the patients we serve?
‘Stem cell technology’ has quietly acquired status as a metonym for stem cell-based therapeutics. Concurrently, the debate around whether stem cells will be predominantly an enabling technology or a core therapeutic technology rages on – including at the 2013 Till & McCulloch Meetings (TMM2013) – generously lubricated by several drams of Canadian whisky.
The Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine’s (CCRM) CEO, Michael May, is renowned for his robust translational stewardship and for his love of organizational diagrams neatly arranged in multiples of three. Therefore, while I am attending the T&MM, co-hosted by CCRM and the Stem Cell Network, I’ll adopt the same practice to demonstrate three notable examples of stem cell achievements that are already contributing to patient outcomes, but are not strictly speaking ‘stem cell therapeutics.’
‘The Curious Case of iPierian:’ Formed by true cell therapy heavyweights, and an early recipient of major venture capital funding, iPierian was initially formed to produce cell-based therapeutics. However, after multiple changes in management, higher than expected technical barriers and a sustained high cash burn rate, iPierian has successfully refocused on utilizing its proprietary iPS cell lines to identify monoclonal antibodies targeting the Tau pathway and the Complement pathway in a number of neurological indications.
‘Growth of Combinational Therapeutics:’ A key theme at both IBC and T&MM 2013 are challenges around cell engraftment and retention. Established routes to enhance engraftment focus around biomaterials, particularly in high shear stress microenvironments as are common in cardiovascular and orthopaedic indications. Therefore, identifying where maximal financial value resides in potential therapeutics – cells themselves or combinational components – is challenging, as is common in the combinational diagnostic field.
‘Non-Therapeutic Stem Cell Opportunities:’ Harvard’s Jeffrey Karp, an astonishing innovator with an infectious sense of humour, regularly utilizes the phrase ‘biological milieu’ to convey the range of opportunities that nature offers to advance how we understand and treat common diseases. And, importantly, the phrase stresses the importance of interaction, at a biological level, which unfortunately does not always percolate through to a commercial level.
In this vein, (and as much as I hate to admit it as someone with a blog series entitled ‘Cell Therapy Industry 2027’), cells as therapies are only a component of the full biomedical potential of stem cell technologies – which also include screening platforms, stem cell-stem cell mediated therapeutic targets and stem cell – small molecule and/or biologic mediated stem cell targets.
Therefore, the stem cell community faces two major identity challenges: cellular level and long-term infrastructural characterization.
Analogously, in literature, the classic example of an ‘identity crisis’ is The Great Gatsby, which immortalizes the 20th century challenges faced in defining the American Dream. And the text itself was subject to several attempts to rename its – now emotive – title. With the printing press now being eclipsed by software-based technologies, all industries are now presented with a similar identity challenge.
This contemporary challenge is highlighted nowhere better than by Nancy Gibbs, the current Managing Editor of Time Magazine – and the first female leader in its history – who in a recent editorial described her role to readers as “…using every new tool – and those not yet invented – to engage in a conversation with the world’s best thinkers.”
‘Stem cell technology’ has quietly acquired status as a metonym for stem cell-based therapeutics. This is only part of its potential.
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