Monday, December 01, 2014

California Stem Cell Research: Juggling Safety and Speed

Robert Klein, the first chairman of the California stem cell agency, is a relentless salesman for the potential of stem cell research.

Certainly such was the case on Nov. 20 when he and a host of others celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Golden State’s $3 billion research effort. Klein said the dream of patients has already become a reality.  But Klein, as he has done in the past, also warned that there would be setbacks.

He might be called prescient. One day later, news emerged from Great Britain about the deaths of four children involved in a stem cell transplant.

It was a reminder that there are considerable risks involved in the field, which is often viewed uncritically by patients and the public. In the case of the British children, Owen Bowcott of The Guardian reported on Nov.25 that the exact cause of the problem with the treatment is still not known.  The cells involved passed all the normal protocols, however.

The California stem cell agency is now involved in 10 clinical trials of stem cell treatments. These are very early stage trials primarily involving safety. The agency will be pushing aggressively and rapidly in the next few years for more trials. “We need a home run,” said Sherry Lansing, a member of the board of directors of the agency, late last year.

The agency is expected to run out of money for new grants in 2020, a date that has been revised from 2017.  Future funding will depend in large part on marketable successes that resonate with future potential sources of funding, be they private or the general public via another bond issue.

Balancing speed with care and safety can be a difficult task. But a catastrophic event can squash the agency’s efforts just as thoroughly as the lack of home runs.
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