Vivek Ramaswamy & his surprising stem cell start

Many of us first became aware of Vivek Ramaswamy as a Republican candidate for President. He was most well-known prior to that as a biotech leader.

Given that biotech background, I decided to learn more about him. Surprisingly, his biomedical efforts may have started with stem cells. That caught my attention.

This was way back during his time as an undergrad at Harvard.

Vivek Ramaswamy
GOP candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

Vivek Ramaswamy did undergrad work in Melton lab?

He did undergrad research in Doug Melton’s lab at Harvard. Talk about potentially a great way to start one’s career in biomedical science.

I emailed Doug Melton to ask if he remembered Vivek. He replied that Ramaswamy did work in his lab. As a side note, Melton has moved on from Harvard to primarily the biotech Vertex, which has an exciting cell therapy pipeline for diabetes.

I wasn’t able to find anything concrete from Ramaswamy’s undergrad time that might reflect the more specific work he did in the Melton lab. Of course, many undergrads work in labs without getting a publication out of it or giving a talk at a conference so that’s not unusual. It is often a great experience regardless.

Right after graduating, Ramaswamy got a 2007 opinion piece published in The New York Times that in part related to embryonic stem cells. How the heck did he do that in his early 20s?

Chimeras are people too?

The item was entitled The chimera question. It relates to human chimeric embryos made with embryonic stem cells.

In it, Ramaswamy highlights some of the many complexities surrounding human chimeras but his essay falls short in several ways. For example, he assumes that most others in society think like he does. The essay also has some unusual ideas about humanity and oversimplifies some very complicated things:

“…policymakers should use the following simple principle as a guide: One should treat a recipient of transferred humanity with the same level of respect as an organism with inborn humanity – in other words, a human being.”

Transferred humanity? Via human embryonic stem cells, it seems he’s saying.

He goes on to write:

“Even if an organism does not appear to be human in biological terms, it nonetheless deserves the moral value of a human being as long as it possesses the qualities that our society has deemed worthy of human respect.”

Thus, he was arguing that a chimera that has partly human cells, perhaps very few if it does not even resemble a human, could still have the “moral value of a human being.”

Be a human?

What qualities does our society deem sufficient to meet that threshold?

Chimera questions

Research on chimeric embryos that include human pluripotent stem cells does raise ethical issues worth discussing. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the NYT published his essay. However, I would have liked to have seen an accompanying piece that articulated different views on the topic.

Perhaps one from an experienced stem cell biologist like Ali Brivanlou, who has worked on chimeras.

Ramaswamy’s NYT opinion piece described him this way, “Vivek Ramaswamy, a recent Harvard College graduate, studied the ethics of human-animal hybrids for his biology honors thesis.”  

Was this ethics research with a different lab or spurred by his time in Melton’s lab? Note that Doug Melton has published extensive, often groundbreaking research using human embryonic stem cells.

Ramaswamy in biotech: failure, but richness

So that was 16 years ago. What has Ramaswamy been up to in the interim and more recently?

Viveck Ramaswamy has found his way into near-billionaire status in the biotech world despite ups and downs. From a recent NYT piece:

“Mr. Ramaswamy’s enterprise is best known for a spectacular failure. As a 29-year-old with a bold idea and Ivy League connections, he engineered what was at the time the largest initial public offering in the biotechnology industry’s history — only to see the Alzheimer’s drug at its center fail two years later and the company’s value tank.

But Mr. Ramaswamy, now 37, made a fortune anyway.”

This clearly was not a positive for the Alzheimer’s disease community even if it was for Ramaswamy’s bank account.

Some of Ramaswamy’s other biotech efforts apparently have been more successful. There’s also nothing wrong with making money in biotech but there should be some balance between profit and helping people. I’m trying to learn more about FDA-approved drugs related to his efforts.

Another kind of transfer of humanity for Vivek Ramaswamy?

After watching part of the first GOP debate and some interviews, it seems to me that Ramaswamy is a very bright person who sells his ideas hard, but he’s a major jerk too, and seems racist at times.

I just don’t see much empathy there for his fellow human beings and he has a bleak, self-centered worldview. All of that combined with saying things (such as in the first GOP debate) that just aren’t true is very concerning, even if his acidic approach to debate did seem to appeal to some viewers.

In addition, he has some extreme plans if he gets into power like gutting the FDA. If you read that interesting STAT piece that I linked to in the previous sentence you’ll see Ramaswamy is way off base on the FDA in several key ways.

I can’t help but think that his top priorities are just money and power for himself. 

For all of these reasons, getting back to his early essay on chimeras and embryonic stem cells, I’d say that it is Ramaswamy himself who could use a transfer of humanity and I don’t mean stem cell injections.

2 thoughts on “Vivek Ramaswamy & his surprising stem cell start”

  1. Perhaps a little too hopeful but do you think this could be a potential opportunity to bring the topic of stem cells and associated research to a more mainstream audience discussion?

    There seems a lot to critique about how the media reported on this and potentially the underlying research (not to mention character and topic of personal enrichment through science). Interested in your thoughts.

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