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 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.