In an effort to reign in the hype surrounding stem cell research that has led to a proliferation of unapproved and potentially dangerous stem cell therapies, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) recently released updated guidelines outlining conduct for stem cell researchers that, for the first time, included communications activities. At only 1.5 pages in the 37-page document, the statements around communications asked researchers, communications professionals, institutions and the media to be more proactive in combatting stem cell hype by ensuring accuracy and balance in communications activities.
It’s too early to know what the full impact of the guidelines will be, however, the communications recommendations did generate a good deal of interest and some media, at least, have taken steps to address the issue.
Whether directly influenced by the guidelines or not, in the final plenary session of the ISSCR annual meeting last week, Professor Roger Barker, a research-clinician at the University of Cambridge, provided a candid portrayal of some of the challenges of preclinical and early clinical research.
Though he may have poked a small hole in some of the optimism that characterized the four-day conference, in providing a rare glimpse of the real costs of research, Dr. Barker might also have given us a new way to frame research to downplay hype.
Dr. Barker is one of many researchers across the globe working on a potential cell-based treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. Parkinson’s is a rather straightforward disease to tackle in this way, because its cause is known: the death of cells that produce the chemical dopamine. Even so, the challenges in developing a treatment are many. Apart from the design of a clinical study (which includes, for example, careful selection of the Parkinson’s patients to include; as Barker pointed out, there are two main types of Parkinson progression and one type may respond to a treatment while the other may not. This is a real concern for Barker, who commented that “a lack of rigour in selecting patients has dogged the field for the past 25 years.”), there are several other factors that need to be addressed in the pre-clinical work, such as identifying the best type of cells to use, how to scale them up and make them both GMP-compliant and standardized for reproducibility.
Such work, Barker estimated, costs between £2 and £3 million (or roughly $3-5 million, valued at pre-Brexit currency rates, one would assume). And, having invested so much to this point, you don’t even have something that can be published yet.
Running the actual clinical phase 1 study, with roughly 20 patients, will cost millions more. If it doesn’t work, you’re back to lab and in search of more pre-clinical funding.
But, assuming the study nets the desired results, it’s still only looking at safety, not efficacy. Getting it to phases 2 and 3 costs several orders of magnitude more. Put in this light, the $3 billion USD given to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine seems like not nearly enough. The Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s $25 million CAD is nothing at all. Not that we aren’t grateful — we do what we can to maximize impact and make even a small investment worthwhile. Every step counts.
Another point to consider is whether the final therapy will be more cost-effective than existing, approved medical interventions. If it’s not, there is little incentive in pursuing it. This is the notion of headroom that I’ve heard discussed more directly at commercialization-based conferences (and is very well explained here) but is one that will become increasingly relevant to research as more basic and translational work finds its way into the clinic.
Talking about money with regard to health can be seen as tedious and even crass. The three short talks given by patient advocates at the ISSCR meeting served to emphasize this – each outlined personal tragedy connected to illness or disease: congestive heart failure at 11 years of age, four generations of a family with sickle cell disease, retinitis pigmentosa that derailed a young woman’s budding career. You simply can’t put a price on a person’s life, happiness and well-being. Each of these patients, and millions more, have hope that research will find an answer. It’s a lofty goal, one that is sometimes hard to remember in the lab trenches when a grant doesn’t materialize or a negative result sends the work back to ground zero.
And therein lies some of the tension that can easily lead to hype. We do want to fly high. We do want to deliver cures and therapies. We need to be reminded, by interactions with the patient community, of what’s at stake and what we can gain for humanity. The field should and will continue to strive to achieve these goals.
But not without responsibility. And a dose of realism.