Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?

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For the past few years the Signals blog site –  which offers an insiders’ perspectives on the world of regenerative medicine and stem cell research – has hosted what it calls a “Blog Carnival”. This is an event where bloggers from across the stem cell field are invited to submit a piece based on a common theme. This year’s theme is “Has Regenerative Medicine Come of Age?” Here’s my take on that question:

Many cultures have different traditions to mark when a child comes of age. A bar mitzvah is a Jewish custom marking a boy reaching his 13th birthday when he is considered accountable for his own actions. Among Latinos in the US a quinceañera is the name given to the coming-of-age celebration on a girl’s 15th birthday.

Regenerative Medicine (RM) doesn’t have anything quite so simple or obvious, and yet the signs are strong that if RM hasn’t quite come of age, it’s not far off.

For example, look at our experience at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). When we were created by the voters of California in 2004 the world of stem cell research was still at a relatively immature phase. In fact, CIRM was created just six years after scientists first discovered a way to derive stem cells from human embryos and develop those cells in the laboratory. No surprise then that in the first few years of our existence we devoted a lot of funding to building world class research facilities and investing in basic research, to gain a deeper understanding of stem cells, what they could do and how we could use them to develop therapies.

Fast forward 14 years and we now have funded 49 projects in clinical trials – everything from stroke and cancer to spinal cord injury and HIV/AIDS – and our early funding also helped another 11 projects get into clinical trials. Clearly the field has advanced dramatically.

In addition the FDA last year approved the first two CAR-T therapies – Kymriah and Yescarta – another indication that progress is being made at many levels.

But there is still a lot of work to do. Many of the trials we are funding at the Stem Cell Agency are either Phase 1 or 2 trials. We have only a few Phase 3 trials on our books, a pattern reflected in the wider RM field. For some projects the results are very encouraging – Dr. Gary Steinberg’s work at Stanford treating people recovering from a stroke is tremendously promising. For others, the results are disappointing. We have cancelled some projects because it was clear they were not going to meet their goals. That is to be expected. These clinical trials are experiments that are testing, often for the first time ever in people, a whole new way of treating disease. Failure comes with the territory.

As the number of projects moving out of the lab and into clinical trials increases so too are the other signs of progress in RM. We recently held a workshop bringing together researchers and regulators from all over the world to explore the biggest problems in manufacturing, including how you go from making a small batch of stem cells for a few patients in an early phase clinical trial to mass producing them for thousands, if not millions of patients. We are also working with the National Institutes of Health and other stakeholders in discussing the idea of reimbursement, figuring out who pays for these therapies so they are available to the patients who need them.

And as the field advances so too do the issues we have to deal with. The discovery of the gene-editing tool CRISPR has opened up all sorts of possible new ways of developing treatments for deadly diseases. But it has also opened up a Pandora’s box of ethical issues that the field as a whole is working hard to respond to.

These are clear signs of a maturing field. Five years ago, we dreamed of having these kinds of conversations. Now they are a regular feature of any RM conference.

The simple fact that we can pose a question asking if RM has come of age is a sign all by itself that we are on the way.

Like little kids sitting in the back of a car, anxious to get to their destination, we are asking “Are we there yet?” And as every parent in the front seat of their car responds, “Not yet. But soon.”

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