It is nice to be back home, but I really enjoyed the World Stem Cell Summit.
It was an energizing, inspiring meeting.
There was a huge amount of information presented including new ideas and challenges to the existing paradigms.
I’ve condensed it down for you. Below I list and briefly discuss what I thought were the top 6 critical take home messages from the meeting.
1) We are a great team, but we need to be more aligned. Our opponents on the other side are uber aligned and formidable. We need to be more integrated and have coordinated plans. The WSCS is awesome and it sure helps align us, but we need to interconnect on a more than yearly basis.
2) We need a strategic plan and improved message discipline. We are getting a little better at working with the press to advance our cause, but too often our message is overly complex and diluted. I think our diversity gives us strength, but we should have some key messages/talking points.
3) We need to rapidly evolve a new partnership with the FDA that includes promoting our priorities of balancing risk in a way that is more context-dependent and accelerating stem cell drug development (think Andy Grove’s talk here).
4) We need scientists to be advocates. Of course there are already great scientist advocates and many were at the WSCS, but they are probably <1% of stem cell scientists. We need scientists to go outside their traditional comfort zones and advocate using their authority in public. This is a woefully underutilized strength. Some ideas include workshops by CIRM and WSCS that directly teach and encourage scientists to do this. I’d be happy to be involved in making this happen. It is crucial.
5) We need to be realistic and forward thinking about funding. Bob Klein’s talk about funding was outstanding. There is a looming black cloud over funding for stem cell research because the same kind of ominous cloud is over science and research more generally in the U.S. We need to continue the battle within the U.S., but his idea of an international basis for research funding is intriguing.
6) We need to be wary in a smart way of so-called “stem cell tourism”. Many at the Summit don’t like the term “stem cell tourism” and I agree it has its problems, but I think when we say that phrase people know what we are talking about and it resonates. Regardless of terminology, clinics or even individual physicians offering non-FDA approved stem cell-related treatments have the potential to not only seriously hurt or kill people, but also hurt our field by association. All you have to do is imagine a scenario where we have a death such as the one that occurred at the German clinic and imagine the roaring headlines of something like “stem cell treatment kills”…and we could be in the same boat as gene therapy was, which as a field has taken more than a decade to recover. It doesn’t matter if the clinic involved in such a hypothetical scenario was not legitimate to us; there will be guilt by association and the public won’t distinguish.
7) We need to be conscious of the cost issue. No matter how incredibly stem cell treatments will be for a variety of diseases, realistically we have to be aware of how much they will cost. For many diseases it seems hard to imagine putting a limit on what would be a reasonable cost. For example, I as a prostate cancer survivor would think that a cure for prostate cancer would be worth a very high cost. The same goes for other life-threatening, life-changing conditions. But as a society, cost is an enormously important issue. On the other hand the cost of caring for patients exceeds a trillion a year. Stem cell treatments, even expensive ones, may be money savers in the long run. Still, we need to keep this issue in mind and be as realistic as possible.