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September 30, 2010

Tread lightly in the valley of death...

By David Kent

Last week, a major kerfuffle erupted in the UK stem cell community as leading scientists and pro stem cell organizations argued that Britain’s range of economic austerity measures would jeopardize their ability to be a major player in translational research. Articles in Reuters and the Daily Telegraph (here and here) detail the cries of the scientific community in response to the latest measures by the UK Government to curb spending. This also comes amidst a major “science rally” being organized by Science is Vital to stop reductions to the science community in general.  

The stem cell specific cries, however, are a little different in this particular case as they are mostly focused on investment into translational research, where the concern, according to Chris Mason, is that Britain appears to have a mantra of “invented here, commercialized elsewhere”. Basically, science in the UK is given good support, but the translation of that science into the clinic is not supported and instead feels like a trip through the “valley of death” according to Sir Richard Sykes of the UK Stem Cell Foundation. Instead of being developed in Britain, companies from America and Asia are offering packages that are much more lucrative to those looking to commercialize.

I am not convinced, however, that large-scale UK government support behind such commercialization efforts is the best solution for the thirsty scientist that steps into the valley. There will always be more money available somewhere else in a more “high risk, high reward” society – the problem for me is that we are not talking about typical inventions or products: we have people’s lives at stake. The comments last week are exactly the sort of rhetoric that offers false hope to those who have been waiting for stem cell therapies to become a reality by suggesting that the only thing stopping patients from receiving bone fide stem cell treatments is a series of tax breaks or government funding supporting the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector. While I am certainly not against the commercialization of promising therapies and/or products, I do worry that hand waving promises and financial opportunities will guide the field as opposed to good old-fashioned sensibilities.  Investment should be made, no doubt about it, but not simply because American companies might steal the intellectual property away from the UK, but rather because they are promising therapies that behoove a government to act on behalf of its citizenry. 

The reality is that while stem cells hold an enormous amount of promise with respect to regenerative medicine, the safety and validity of proposed treatments has sometimes been overlooked in the bid to create a successful biotech startup. This is why initiatives such as the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s Closer Look at Stem Cell Treatments are so critical. In this rare progressive move from a scientific society, stem cell scientists from around the globe have banded together to help police and offer advice on the numerous stem cell therapy options available, including a patient handbook in five different languages and cautionary videos from world leading researchers.

We need to proceed with cautious optimism when it comes to stem cell therapy. As we learned the very hard way in the gene therapy field not so long ago, the promise (and indeed the successful treatment of disease) can be so attractive that we allow ourselves to take major risks that have severe consequences. More funding for stem cell scientists to do it the right way is fine, but not if the caveat is to produce therapies “now” just for some extra funding over the next few years – the science community will have to answer for it sooner or later.  

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