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Stanford stem cell experts highlight “inherent flaw” in drug development system

Academic institutions are in a much better position than pharmaceutical companies to make the best decisions about which therapies deserve further development. That was the underlying message from a pair of Stanford researchers at a panel on stem cell science at last weekend's Association of Health Care Journalism 2015 conference.

“There’s an inherent flaw in our system,” said Irving Weissman, MD, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. “Companies are driven by the desire for profits rather than the desire to find the best therapy, and they often give up on discoveries too early.”

Weissman cited studies that were done long ago at Stanford and proven in mouse models or human clinical trials that pharmaceutical companies have failed to develop. “In mice, transplantation of purified blood stem cell and insulin producing cells from closely related mice leads to a permanent cure,” Weissman says. “We discovered that 16 years ago, and a therapy is still not available.”

A therapy involving high-dose chemotherapy followed by purified stem cell transplant for stage 4 breast cancer cured a relatively high number of women in a small trial almost 20 years ago but the pharmaceutical company with the rights to the technology decided not to develop the treatment, Weissman says. A larger trial of this therapy is currently being planned at Stanford.

Maria Grazia Roncarolo, MD, co-director of the institute, spoke about her own experience in an academic environment developing therapies for diseases that pharmaceutical companies deem to rare to merit their attention. Only after she showed that a therapy for severe combined immune deficiency could work did pharmaceutical companies get interested.

“Academic researchers should have the ability to test a therapy, to have control of the design and execution of the clinical trials, and pharmaceutical companies should do the production and marketing,” Roncarolo told the journalists attending the session.

Allowing academic institutions to run clinical trials is “a big effort that will require a team, institutional commitment and robust funding,” Roncarolo said. Comparing the situation in the United States to that in Europe, where she has done much of her research, she notes that “in this country there is little funding for proof of concept trials to bring therapies from the lab bench to the bedside.”

Previously: An inside look at drug development, Stanford’s Irving Weissman on the (lost?) promise of stem cells and The largest stem cell research building in the U.S.

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