Thursday, July 07, 2016

Monty Python, $3 billion and Stem Cells in the Golden State

Inquisition scene from Monty Python, photo CIRM/Daily Mail
The headline today from California was nearly irresistible:
"The Spanish Inquisition and a tale of two stem cell agencies"
Not only that, but the headline appeared over an article involving Monty Python, the $3 billion California stem cell agency and the lesser,  $38 million United Kingdom's Regenerative Medicine Platform(UKRMP)

The "Inquisition" article ran on the California agency's blog. The author was Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known. 

His topic? How the UK and California efforts have performed, according to an article by Stanford's Irv Weissman and Fiona Watt of King's College London, who is a member of the CIRM scientific advisory board, currently "on hold," according to McCormack.  The Watt-Weissman piece was recently published and buried behind a paywall in Cell Stem Cell.

McCormack noted that the article cited location and politics as important in both operations. He wrote, 
"CIRM was created by the voters of California in 2004, largely in response to President George W. Bush’s restrictions on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. UKRMP, in contrast was created by the UK government in 2013 and designed to help strengthen the UK’s translational research sector....
"Inevitably the two agencies took very different approaches to funding, shaped in part by the circumstances of their birth – one as a largely independent state agency, the other created as a tool of national government.
"CIRM, by virtue of its much larger funding was able to create world-class research facilities, attract top scientists to California and train a whole new generation of scientists. It has also been able to help some of the most promising projects get into clinical trials. UKRMP has used its more limited funding to create research hubs, focusing on areas such as cell behavior, differentiation and manufacturing, and safety and effectiveness. Those hubs are encouraged to work collaboratively, sharing their expertise and best practices."

Irv Weissman, photo wapiti-waters
Weissman and Watt said it was "not unexpected" that CIRM still has not produced a therapy for widespread use. They cited the sometimes decades-long time frame for transforming basic research into a therapy.

Which is where Monty Python comes in, said McCormack. The two scientists picked up a famous line from the British comedy series:
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition – because our chief weapon is surprise.”
Fiona Watt, photo Watt Lab
McCormack wrote,
"They use that to highlight the surprises and uncertainty that stem cell research has gone through in the more than ten years since CIRM was created. They point out that a whole category of cells, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, didn’t exist until 2006; and that few would have predicted the use of gene/stem cell therapy combinations. The recent development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology shows the field is progressing at a rate and in directions that are hard to predict; a reminder that that researchers and funding agencies should continue to expect the unexpected."

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