Harvard’s Brock Reeve Sizes up the Prospects for Stem Cells in 2008 and Beyond
2007 has been an outstanding year for stem cells—those much-ballyhooed cells with the ability to develop into numerous tissues in the body and ultimately, researchers hope, repair the damage in ailments such as Parkinson’s disease or spinal cord injury. Scientific papers have been flying fast and furious, but which of the year’s developments are the most important, and how will they affect Massachusetts’ nascent stem cell industry in the year to come?
For answers to these and other questions, I turned to Brock Reeve, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HCSI). The former COO of Life Science Insights, a Framingham, MA-based research firm, Reeve has a unique perspective on stem cells and their potential to affect medicine and medical research—his brother was the late actor Christopher Reeve, who became one of the field’s most vocal advocates after he was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident.
Brock Reeve took up his post at HSCI in 2006. The institute, which was founded in 2004, now includes 19 member institutions, including Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, and area teaching hospitals and research organizations.
HSCI researchers from some of those member institutions played important roles in what Reeve says was the biggest news in stem cells this year: the development of ways to turn back the developmental clock on adult cells. The technique, called somatic cell reprogramming, could yield embryonic-like stem cells without destroying embryos in the process. Such cells could be vital research tools and, because they could theoretically be custom-made from a patient’s own cells, might ultimately provide a source of genetically matched replacement tissues and organs that would avoid rejection by the body.
Reprogramming developed “a lot faster than anyone thought,” Reeve said, moving from initial mouse studies (pioneered at Kyoto University and expanded upon at HSCI and elsewhere) into studies with human cells within the course of the year. But the current technique employs viruses that insert special genes into the adult cells—such genetic methods can themselves cause cancer and other problems, meaning that cells produced via this type of reprogramming are likely too dangerous to transplant directly into people. Which leads me right into my next question for Reeve.
Xconomy: What are the most important things you expect to see happen in 2008?
Brock Reeve: One big question is how to get reprogramming of human stem cells without methods like retroviruses, which is what those labs used. Can you do that with chemical compounds? I think that will happen within a year.
In one way or another, we will also achieve somatic cell nuclear transfer [editor’s note: aka “therapeutic cloning,” another proposed means of creating stem cells genetically matched to an individual] in human cells.
Another key area that will get more sophisticated this year is imaging. We need to be able to track the cells used better and know where they are going and what they are doing. In medical trials, doctors inject the cells and hope they go to the right places. That’s what FDA is really going to worry about: If you put in these embryonic stem cells in the body, are they really turning into adult cells? Or, are they just disappearing and having some unexplained effect on surrounding cells?
Finally, I think Massachusetts itself will see three or four new stem cell startups.
X: Speaking of stem cell startups, why aren’t there more of them here? Just-launched Fate Therapeutics, for instance, seems to be making its home in Seattle.
BR: Well, part of it is just circumstances. With Fate Therapeutics, David Scadden and Leonard Zon [of HSCI] are involved, but so are scientists from Stanford and Scripps. It’s a national network.
Historically, the returns have not been great and VCs, overall, have been hesitant about stem cell startups. But now, things are moving more quickly. I have seen … Next Page »