Making a Think Tank think again; opening eyes to stem cell research

It’s not often you hear gasps of amazement from an audience, particularly not when that audience is a highly educated, very influential, not-easily-impressed group of people. But a panel presentation at the Milken Global Conference yesterday did just that, by describing the game-changing potential of stem cell therapies.

The Milken Global Conference is an extraordinary event in its own right. Over the course of three days of top-level presentations the conference draws together world leaders and prominent figures in the fields of finance, science and health – people like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, and singer The goal is to bring these minds together to solve urgent social and economic challenges and improve lives.

The audience for these presentations, as you might guess, has come to expect the very best. This is a tough crowd to impress. Fortunately the four panel members talking about stem cell research are not just skilled and experienced scientists, they are also articulate, engaging and witty. Now I might be a tad biased about this because all four just happen to be doing work that is funded by the stem cell agency.

Each explored a different aspect of stem cell research. Eugene Brandon from biotech company ViaCyte began with a basic description of what embryonic stem cells are and what they can do and, most importantly, how they are using that knowledge to develop a treatment for type 1 diabetes that we hope will enter a clinical trial later this year.

Paula Cannon from USC talked about combining stem cells with other technologies. In this way she believes scientists can genetically modify blood stem cells to develop a treatment, even a potential cure, for HIV/AIDS.

Jill Helms from Stanford explained how she is using stem cells to stimulate the body’s own healing mechanisms and how that can improve our ability to fight a wide range of age-related problems; from broken bones that don’t mend or wounds that don’t heal.

Alysson Muotri of UC San Diego rounded out the presentation talking about the use of iPS cells to create new ways of seeing how diseases impact particular cells in our body, and then using those cells to screen for potential new drugs to treat those diseases.

Even though the session was just one hour, it covered a lot of ground. Both the main room and the overflow room were packed. Clearly there is a lot of interest in the topic. And after the session many people came up to ask follow-up questions.

Those of us who are immersed in this world every day can sometimes forget just how extraordinary some of this research is, so it’s always a wonderful reminder to see the impact it has on people who are hearing about it for the first time. And it’s an incentive for us to make sure we tell our story to as many people as possible. After all, we have a great story to tell. kevin mccormack

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