By Manny Lopez
The 2nd Annual Stem Cell Meeting on Torrey Pines Mesa, hosted by the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, brought together some of the best minds in the field of stem cell research. The purpose of the symposium was to facilitate the interaction between those involved in various aspects of the field, which will hopefully lead to the development of new therapies and cures for debilitating diseases.
The invitation-only event was held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ Frederic de Hoffman Auditorium on Oct. 17. The event was attended by students, researchers, policy makers, industry representatives, venture capitalists, law firms and patients who follow the science closely. Duane Roth, founder and former CEO of Alliance Pharmaceuticals who is now CEO of CONNECT, a non profit technology and sciences business accelerator, said, “This is an important annual event because it brings together all of the interested parties.”
Formed in March 2006, the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine (SDCRM) was launched as a response to the passage of the state’s $3 billion Proposition 71: The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act, which voters approved in November 2004. The law provides funding for stem cell research over 10 years and led to the creation of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. According to Roth, San Diego has garnered the highest amount of research money of any other city in the state, which he estimated equates to roughly one third of all the money that has already been granted. Most of that funding has gone to the SDCRM.
“The mesa in La Jolla is the most concentrated place on the earth for scientists, engineers and medical interaction,” Roth said. “There’s no place like it on the planet.”
Joydeep Goswami, vice president of Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at Invitrogen, said, “La Jolla has the great advantage of four institutions that are very well-recognized around the world, with places like the Burnham, the Salk Institute, UCSD and Scripps all in this small area. I think that’s very hard to replicate. The only place I can see anything similar actually is in Boston by way of Harvard, MIT, Boston College and UMass all in the same area. This is even more concentrated than that. The kinds of collaborations that are possible here within the four institutions are unprecedented. The other advantages are the high-quality science and the high-quality medical treatment. It’s all here. “
Much of the discussion at the symposium was geared towards tempering expectations about what stem cell research can and cannot do. Goswami said, “The science is clearly in its early stages and there is still a lot more work that must be done. As the science evolves, we will start changing our perceptions about what stem cells can really do for us.”
He went on to characterize the science as “still in its embryonic phase,” but acknowledged that the “potential for fundamentally changing our understanding of human disease on multiple fronts was great.”
Dr. Wright said, “We in the stem cell community must make sure that we’re not being unrealistic in what we hope and promise collectively.”
Shifting away from embryonic stem cells was a continuous subject of discussion throughout the conference. There was a lot of talk about different approaches that don’t involve the use of embryos. The discussions focused on the difficulty in obtaining and growing embryonic stem cells and the high costs and lack of federal funding for this type of research.
As the conference came to a close, Dr. Ewa Carrier, associate professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at UCSD’s Blood Marrow Transplantation Program, emphasized the importance of getting more of the public into the stem cell research discussion.
“When people hear the words ‘stem cell,’ their first impression is embryonic stem cells,” she said. “Work on embryonic stem cells comprises a very small amount of the research actually going on. There is a growing need to educate people on what we are doing here.”
Carrier urged taxpayers, who are paying for this research and who will ultimately benefit from any advances in the field, to become engaged in the ongoing dialogue surrounding research on stem cells. The ICOC holds full board meetings throughout the state. A schedule of upcoming meetings and their locations can be found at the CIRM Web site at www.cirm.ca.gov.