Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hype, Geron and Stem Cell Research: A Hard-eyed View from the North

From Canada last week came a stem cell "reality check" that pulled together a professional football quarterback, a Yankee baseball pitcher, a Republican presidential hopeful and Geron.

Timothy Caulfield,
U. of Alberta Photo
What do they all have in common? Stem cell therapy, answered Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian academic, writing on the Canadian version of the Huffington Post. Declaring that stem cell treatments are being ballyhooed as a "miracle cure" and "elixir of life," Caulfield wrote,
"But does it actually work? I think not -- at least not yet."
Caulfield is not one of your stereotypical opponents of stem cell research. In fact, he describes himself as a "believer" in the likelihood of development of effective stem cell therapies. Caulfield also springs from a deep academic background. He is research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta and has published a plethora of scholarly articles related to stem cell research.

Caulfield wrote that Geron's abandonment of hESC research "underscores the cavernous gap between the well-publicized (and completely legitimate) promise of stem cell research and actual, efficacious, therapies."

He said the California company's decision "generated both shock and anger. And for the patients hoping for a near-future cure, it was nothing less than heartbreaking."

Caulfield continued,
"Not only did the company decide to stop this particular trial, it decided to get out of the field of stem cell therapies altogether. So definitive was the decision that Geron gave back millions of public research dollars(to the California stem cell agency)."
Caulfield warned, however,
"We need to be careful not to over-interpret the Geron pull out. This is one company and one trial. There are now a few other clinical experiments in the pipeline (emphasis on a few), such as one to treat a form of blindness. And we must remember that not all things that are called 'stem cell therapies' are the same. "
Caulfield continued with his "reality check,"
"First, ignore the hype. I believe there is little evidence that any of the often advertised stem cell therapies, embryonic or otherwise, work. Yes, there are a handful of decades-old treatments ….

"(Peyton) Manning, (Bartolo) Colon and (Rick)Perry may have had a positive experience (the placebo effect is a powerful thing, after all), but, to date, I believe good clinical evidence simply does not exist.

"Second, despite the hope of many, it isn't going to be easy to make money off stem cell research -- at least with a treatment that is scientifically legitimate, appropriately tested and approved by the relevant regulatory agencies (three characteristics missing from most of the stem cell therapies currently offered in clinics around the world). "Economic growth has often been one of the ways that the huge public investment in stem cell research has been justified. Just a few weeks ago, for example, the UK government announced that it was committing millions in a stem cell research centre with the hope that it will help drive the UK economic recovery.

"But the ability of emerging stem cell technologies to stimulate the economy and create jobs is far from certain. Indeed, economics is the explicit reason for the Geron pull out. The company press release stated that the decision was made after a strategic review of the costs, timelines and 'clinical, manufacturing and regulatory complexities associated' with this kind of research. In other words, stem cell research is not, from the perspective of this company, worth it."
Caulfield concluded,
"I don't mean to be a downer. In fact, I believe that stem cell research holds tremendous potential. I remain fully confident that, one day, therapies will emerge. But the inappropriate hype associated with this area hurts policy debates, leads to unmet expectations, and has the potential to mislead the public about the actual state of the science. The Geron story is a sober reminder that promise is not reality, even in a field as exciting as stem cell research."
Sphere: Related Content


  1. Jim Fossett9:47 AM

    Hard to argue with most of what Caulfield says, but it should be noted that much the same thing could be said of lots of other biomedical enterprises, either university or private. There are a lot of competing approaches to cancer drug development, for example, and each has its own lengthy time horizon and big scientific uncertainties, and some have crashed and burned. Part of the reason why there's so much hype is that politicians and journalists want to hear about big results and don't want to hear about the uncertainty.

  2. Jim Fossett makes a good point that Caulfield's remarks could apply in other areas of biomedicine. However, California enjoyed a special exposure to stem cell hype with the $30 million ballot initiative campaign that created the state's stem cell agency in 2004. Plus stem cell research seems to carry a miracle aura that is not found in the results of more pedestrian, but perhaps even more important medical research.