Harvard’s Brock Reeve Sizes up the Prospects for Stem Cells in 2008 and Beyond
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a pick up in venture capital interest overall, and we’re also seeing a new interest on the biopharma side.
X: What types of startups are we likely to see?
BR: People are starting to look at stem cells not just as medicines themselves, but as tools, particularly for drug screening.
Five years ago Harvard set up a center where we are doing screening to try and find molecules to slow or stop the advance of certain diseases. We looked at motor neurons in ALS and in spinal muscular atrophy, for example. A lot of big pharmas have been talking to us about using those kinds of screens. Up next, we’re working on similar screens for cardiotoxicity [i.e. predicting if a drug has bad effects on the heart].
If we can grow [heart cells] and test drugs against them, theoretically we could we “rescue” a drug that failed the current standard toxicity test, which leads to false positives sometimes. Or we could find out earlier about drug candidates that are harmful to the heart, and not waste further time working on those.
X: What has slowed the translation of ideas like that into new companies?
BR: One of the things VCs are waiting for are business models that are viable with what we know now, and that’s one reason Fate Therapeutics got funded. They are looking at chemicals that affect stem cell behavior. Leonard Zon’s lab has found a drug that enriches the somatic cell population [meaning, it causes the body's own stem cells to multiply], while David Scadden’s group found drugs that enhance stem cell homing and engraftment [in other words, they help guide the cells to the right places in the body].
The question is the rate at which that business activity is going to grow. We’re just at early stages but we do have tangible examples of companies that have been started.
X: Does it help having Governor Deval Patrick promoting a stem cell initiative?
BR: It’s great that the Patrick administration is paying attention to biotechnology in general, but I’m not certain how much of that will go to stem cells. If it is too watered down, and is just about life sciences broadly, it won’t help stem cell research. It should be made clear that some of the funds will go directly to stem cell work.
For stem cell research to thrive, what is critical is to attract junior faculty. The keys to that are grants and having affordable housing.
X: Will Massachusetts stay ahead of California in stem cell research?
BR: We are “it” for stem cells. Everybody else would like to be the “it” place, but Mass leads in depth and breadth. Under the HSCI umbrella alone you have more stem cell researchers than any other place. We’ve got 50 principle faculty and 70 affiliated researchers. It’s a scale and concentration of scientists and clinicians that can’t be duplicated.
Then you combine that with support organizations, people selling tools like BD Biosciences and Millipore, the venture capitalists, etc., and you have the whole cluster of economic activity right here. And our ability to connect the clinical care with the research is a unique advantage
If you look at California you have UCSF, Scripps, and Berkley. But they are all scattered. It is harder for them to collaborate and have some of the economies of expertise sharing that is necessary in a field as multidisciplinary as this one. I always worry about competition. What is interesting around the West Coast is that it has $3 billion, but it doesn’t have the collaboration we have here.
I think you will see collaboration grow between here [HSCI] and the entire world. Stem cell research is a global environment, and we already have collaborative projects around the world. A year or two ago people were worried about Singapore, now it’s China and India. Frankly, I worry as much about competition from China and India as from California.