What countries are ‘punching above their weight’ in stem cell space?

By Heather Main

What countries are doing disproportionately well given their size on their stem cell research?

When reading through the ISSCR 2015 program you can understand why everyone wants to go to the US for their postdoc as it seems like most of the work being presented is US-based. In fact, this is more than true with 78 of 156 speakers being USA based, a straight 50% of the program. Coming in second is Germany with 11 speakers. Being an Aussie I wanted to see how Australia stacked up against this and thus made a simple calculation on the ‘success’ of a country in the stem cell space based on the assumption that speaking at ISSCR reflects your success in the field. It’s not rocket science, it goes;

  • Number of speakers from the country/number of speakers = % speakers
  • % speakers/% ‘population’ relative to other countries included = speaker:population ratio

A ratio above 1.0 means the country is over-performing based on its population number. Considering not all countries had representation in the ISSCR 2015 program and this is intended to be a happy post not a basher I have only shown the top 11 performing countries here (couldn’t leave Australia out).stem cell countries

Being the host country we may not be surprised that Sweden is the top performer. However, hosting the event is itself kind of evidence of the great research going on in Sweden with Stockholm-based Karolinska Institutet highly regarded for its medical science innovations and Sweden’s being very supportive of medical science funding. More recently Astra Zeneca also invested $240 million for a Stockholm-based Integrated Cardio Metabolic Centre (ICMC), demonstrating confidence in Swedish medical science research.

Moa Stenudd
Stem cell scientist Moa Stenudd.

Jonas Frisen popped in to give a plenary talk on his great work in neurogenesis and regeneration and the Swedish Karolinska PhD students Moa Stenudd (JF’s student; see image from Frisen lab), Lakshmi Sandhow and Nigel Kee (presenting on spinal ependymal cells, MSCs and dopaminergic neurons respectively) showed that it’s not only the big names who get the chance to talk about their work. Katarina Le Blanc also presented work on the clinical testing of MSC therapies in humans, groundwork that will determine how we go about cellular therapies in the future. Finally from Sweden, Agnete Kirkeby (Lund University) and Iwan Jones (Umeå (Oomeaw) University), studying neural tube and neural crest respectively, solidified Sweden’s top spot in stem cells at ISSCR 2015.

Number 2, Israel is definitely an interesting space to watch. For good reasons here, it was the next best performer. Strong links with the US have no doubt driven investment in research in Israel as opposed to neighbouring countries. The closest country to Israel that is represented in the ISSCR program is Greece, making Israel an island of high quality stem cell research in a rather tumultuous part of this world. A diversity of topics were represented by Israel including epigenetic disorders, neural stem cell ontogeny, RNA methylation, Fragile X and, of course, pluripotency. An interesting mix, demonstrating the diversity of high quality stem cell research going on in Israel.

However, both Sweden and Israel had a member on the program committee, unlike Switzerland or Finland, coming in third and fourth. Switzerland is well known for it’s biotech and solid investments into research and translational development but Finland, I have always felt, is a quiet achiever…regardless of the fact that they are probably some of the quieter people on earth, thus the old paradox of the Scandinavian countries developing mobile communication… The land of Nokia is doing great per capita in the stem cell space. Coming in at number 5 is the US. Won’t spend too much time here as with 50% of the program and 41% of the program committee, we all know who they are.

To give a little perspective, when adding a second timepoint to this analysis ie. ISSCR 2014, we see a slightly different spread;

stem cell countries 2

Still in the ‘top 11’ are Sweden, Israel, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Singapore, the UK and Australia, with 2014-2015 positive movement by Sweden (6-1, not surprising), Israel (5-2) and the USA (7-5). Also Finland, Denmark and Germany appear in 2015 at the expense of the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. It may be surprising that Japan is not in either of these lists, in fact sitting at 15 in 2014 and 17 in 2015. This does not remove in any way from the amazing work they do, it is purely the handicap of a large population with Japan matching the UK (ranked 9 in 2015) with 9 speakers each in 2015.

Personally I’m very proud of Australia who maintains a spot in the top 11 both years, 4 in 2014 and 11 in 2015. For a country of 23 million and only 5 cities with more than a million people we are a very proud technological nation (though our current government has more in common with Vatican City than science and technology), we have some great stem cell work going on, including a surprising number of innovating stem cell companies. As they say in the ads, if you haven’t been to Australia, ‘where the bloody hell are ya?’ There is lots of collaboration to be had.

To conclude, being an Aussie I was aware that Nigel Kee from Karolinska Institutet is also Aussie as well as Allan Robins from Viacyte and Alan Trounson who received the ISSCR public service award. Similarly I’m sure those representing many ‘countries’ are not nationals but have travelled for opportunities and to be involved in ground-breaking work. Thus, maybe the ‘success’ of a country should be how good they are at training and recruiting great people, national or not. Would be great to see where the best minds are coming from but that is not an easy numbers game for today!

5 thoughts on “What countries are ‘punching above their weight’ in stem cell space?”

  1. I would like an honest opinion of Dr. Paolo Macchiarini’s work still amid all of the unfounded accusations from his exceptional work at Karolinska and other RM institutions.


  2. I’m glad that more and more countries are interested in. This top11 only proves it and finally Europe is taking steps into new territories.

  3. Would be interested to see it further normalized to the % of GDP a country budgets for science and technology. That would really tell you who is working productively. It would be a little difficult to work how much is specifically being spent on Stem cell research but science and technology data as a whole is easy to come by.

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