Saturday, August 15, 2009

Montana Lad Speaks Out on Scientists, Stem Cells and Obama

Nature Reports Stem Cells this week carried an interview with the son of some fur traders and junk dealers on the subject of stem cells.

Among other things, he said most scientists don't know what medicine is and then took on President Obama concerning the new NIH rules on stem cell research.

The comments came from Irv Weissman of Stanford in a Q&A with Monya Baker, editor of Nature Reports Stem Cells. The interview keyed on his role as the new president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Here is the section on scientists and medicine.
Baker: "Why is it so hard to move science into medicine?"

Weissman: "First, most scientists don't know what medicine is. They don't know what whole-body physiology or pathology [is]. So they tend to be, at least at the beginning, unrealistic in their expectations. Second, there are not many people trained to do clinical trials.

"And you have to realize that things don't make it into clinical, commercial therapies without a lot of money."
He spoke about overcoming nontechnical barriers in the stem cell field.
“(G)going from labs to commercial and clinical products, we need to understand how it could be a commercially viable business. Stem cells, unlike drugs or proteins, self-renew and differentiate in a fashion regulated by the body; they regenerate systems for life from a single therapy. If you're going to deliver stem cells for lifetime therapy, the cost of goods and reasonable profit has to be priced with the knowledge it replaces daily therapies like insulin or blood transfusions.

“One of the greatest experiments I know of is being done in California. The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine [CIRM] sent out last year an RFA [request for applications] for disease teams to take stem cells and/or therapies derived from them through preclinical right up to the filing of the first IND [investigational new drug application] with the FDA. That's an area that was formerly funded only by companies. Now universities and other nonprofit institutions need to learn what companies do, including rigorous manufacturing practices [GMP] and FDA-compliant regulatory documents.”
Weissman also answered a question about how he came to be a scientist:
“I was born and brought up in Great Falls, Montana. My father and grandfather were fur traders and junk dealers. I was about to be the first in those generations to get an education. When I was ten years old I read a book called Microbe Hunters, which was about the lives of people like Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur. It was incredibly exciting to me.

“I really looked for a way to do research after that. I should say I was never a straight A student. When I was about 16, I met Ernst Eichwald at the local hospital. Ernst was German, his father was Jewish.

“During the beginnings of WWII Ernst belonged to a student group against the Nazis; somebody in his group was arrested, and without going home he crossed the border. He came to Harvard, he was on faculty there; he came to Utah, was on faculty there for awhile. He got sick of academic politics and decided to run the pathology service at the Montana Deaconess Hospital. Very early he handed me a paper [George Snell's paper on histocompatibility genes] as if I could read it, and I told him that I didn't understand the first word! He spent a whole Saturday with me, and we covered just that one paper.

“I realized that the language of science substitutes Greek and Latin terms for plain English, that it was a way to keep people out of the field. He didn't need to say histocompatibility. He could say "tissue-transplantation compatibility", but I also realized I could understand it. Thanks to the freedom Dr. Eichwald gave me, I began designing my own experiments at 16.”
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  1. Anonymous6:09 AM

    Irv Weissman has probably contributed more understanding on stem cells than anyone. He is deserving of the Nobel IMHO.

    The knowledge we've gained from his work on hematopoiesis has served as a basis for many a therapy, most notably bone marrow transplantation and the treatment of leukemias. But he knows first hand of what he speaks. The companies founded on his stellar science over the last 20 years have struggled to apply the science in a medically and commercially successful way. It brings home his point, science has to also be brilliantly applied. The right combination of the two has eluded many. If done well, the CIRM initiative has an opportunity to help scientists and companies bring it all together.

  2. The Weissman interview is recommended reading as far as the California Stem Cell Report is concerned. And appreciate the comments from "anonymous" concerning Weissman's impact. We also think that Weissman's indirect criticism of the jargon of the "high priests" is useful. The practice is common in other professions as well. Sometimes it is justified because of the necessity for precision in communication. Other times, the high priests use it to create an illusion and prevent widespread access to the temple, be it economics, art, wine or PR.