Sunday, March 11, 2007

Two Days of Stem Cells: Founder Flight to Hyperventilation

Christopher Thomas Scott, executive director of Stanford's Program on Stem Cells in Society, is scheduled to set the scene Monday for a two-day international conference on stem cells in San Francisco.

"The business issues are profound," he says, "including access to patients, fragmented intellectual property and a new calculus of investment risk that includes whether the research is illegal and how to mitigate against 'founder flight' as entrepreneurs seek permissive jurisdictions to launch their businesses."

We asked Scott, who is co-chair of the conference sponsored by Burrill & Company, for a preview of his remarks. Here is what he supplied.

"No one can deny the promise of regenerative medicine. But the field has its shaky spots: an astonishingly young science, polarized politics, and fraught with ethical worry. Yet stem cell biology has been on a tear lately. In just a handful of years, the science has moved from hunting stem cells to the arcane secrets of signal transduction. The hyperventilation about which stem cells--embryonic or adult--will be clinically useful is largely lost on scientists. The questions facing them are more elemental: can stem cells be chemically reprogrammed to earlier, more powerful versions of themselves? On which branch of the family tree does a new stem cell rest? What gene signals cause a stem cell to make more stem cells, or change into the next cell type down the line? The last question is on every researcher’s mind, because signal pathways are critical to understand how a certain type of cell can be made from an embryonic stem cell line, or how millions of adult stem cells can be made from a just a few to treat disease.

"2006 was a watershed year in other ways. Most Americans support embryonic stem cell research, and so does Congress. Despite a vote in the House and Senate that would overturn a restrictive presidential mandate, it wasn't enough to override George Bush's first-ever veto. California pushed through a thicket of lawsuits to shake loose billions of dollars for regenerative medicine. Now, finally, there is light at the end of that tunnel. Legislation in other states is moving so quickly it's difficult to keep track: just last week, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota signed laws to permit all types of stem cell research. As political winds fanned the flames stateside, stem cells went international, creating a different kind of global warming. In a mighty push, Australia overturned a ban on nuclear transfer. The world's researchers had a banner year, with Japan, Germany, Norway and others announcing major discoveries. Not all the offshore news was good, however. The heat created a conflagration with the biggest scientific fraud in memory, the South Korean scandal.

"One thing is certain--international politics and the legal landscape has altered the way we do biomedical research. Thomas Friedman's "global flattening" doesn't apply here. A mosaic of legislation and national policy means uneven terrain for funding, infrastructure and accessibility to embryos and lines. The business issues are profound, including access to patients, fragmented intellectual property and a new calculus of investment risk that includes whether the research is illegal and how to mitigate against "founder flight" as entrepreneurs seek permissive jurisdictions to launch their businesses. The vacuum in Washington has shattered the state legislative landscape. In one state, a scientist can go to jail for doing embryonic stem cell research. In another, embryos can't be used for research, but it is fine to ship them in across the border. And who would have predicted this in 2001, the year of Bush's pronouncement: once funding from California, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and other states is fully unleashed, it will surpass by a wide margin any dedicated federal dollars, restricted or otherwise.

"With all the moving parts, it made sense to assemble a group of experts and scholars from many disciplines to address issues at the interface of science, business, economics, law, and policy. I was delighted when Burrill & Company asked me to develop an agenda that would explore these connections. As a rule, stem cell conferences tend to be monolithic, in part because the reach of regenerative medicine is too broad to be addressed in two or three days. But to my knowledge, no conference tackles these questions from an international perspective. I'm excited to learn what this stellar group has to say, and how the glimmering edge of biology's most promising frontier will look in 2007 and beyond."

We will attending the conference both days. Watch for continuing coverage of the event. Sphere: Related Content

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