In 2004, with President
It's been almost 10 years since California funded what may be the world's biggest stem cell research program. What are you up to?
We are working hard to get six or seven projects to clinical trials. We have more than 70 [total] programs moving [toward] clinical trials. It's a lot of work to chaperon.
I'll give you three examples: one, linking
Secondly, we've set up a structure for banking the 3,000 cell lines from "induced pluripotent stem cells" that we turn into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. We call them IPS cells. You take a skin cell or blood cell and convert it to the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell.
We've also taken samples from patients with complex diseases, and we're banking these so scientists can "interrogate" these diseases — like
What we're doing is meaningful. Somebody with cancer may have a better treatment.
Are Californians getting enough bang for their buck?
I think we're way ahead of what people predicted. Nevertheless, it takes a lot of time to do this. I think we're hurrying carefully.
I'm intending to set up a network of stem cell clinics in California in the next couple of years, to make treatments available as clinical trials or as registered treatments for patients. I'm going to ask the [CIRM] board for about $70 million to get that set up. It will make California a go-to place for stem cell therapies. I want to make sure it's part of our medical fabric.
An Oregon scientist reports that he has cloned human stem cell lines. Is Oregon doing something different from California?
The one thing that's different is that we can't compensate women adequately for donating eggs [as a source for creating a particular type of stem cell]. We can pay for the cost of drugs but not for the time and inconvenience. So that really does limit the number of women who would like to donate eggs to research, and that's a handicap. I think it would be very useful to develop those cell lines.
The words "cloning" and "human" together set off alarm bells for some people.
[Under Proposition 71] we can't do any reproductive cloning. We can't do it and we shouldn't do it — none of us wants to do that — but we would like to make those cell lines.
Is stem cell research highly competitive now, as it was in the 1980s, when you were beginning your work?
I don't think it's very competitive at all. There's a little bit of competition between California and Harvard, but that will always be the case, I suspect. What's important with [California's] $3 billion is that it's taken away a lot of the silliness of the competition — that you hold your data and you don't show anyone and you wait until you [get it published] in a journal. In
Could embryonic stem cells become unnecessary because other cells can be just as adaptable?
Maybe longer term. IPS cells have a very strong memory of what they were, whether they were a blood cell or a skin cell. Embryonic stem cells don't. We have to find out whether IPS cells can [really adapt] or whether they'll be poor relatives of the embryonic stem cell. Embryonic stem cells are being used for therapy, but IPS cells are being taken from patients with different diseases to interrogate those diseases. They're not therapeutic at this time.
What surprises have you encountered?
I'm surprised all the time. That you can actually create a cure for HIV/AIDS with stem cells — that's in clinical trials [in Denmark] now. That we found how to jump a skin cell to a pancreatic cell or a cardiac muscle cell. Every month comes a new surprise, tumbling toward totally different medicine that we'll have in 30 or 40 years' time.
This work is still controversial. Your team in Australia created the technique that has allowed 5 million in vitro fertilization babies to be born worldwide. But you were still called a "baby murderer." Astrophysicists don't get that kind of reaction.
In the surveys I've seen across the U.S., you get 70% or 80% of people very much in favor [of stem cell and IVF work]. If we get cures or treatments for some of these debilitating diseases, which is going to happen over the next four or five years, people will embrace what's necessary to help a Parkinson's patient or someone who's got Type 1
Have you faced such personal criticism here?
Not really. Last year I was invited to the
Will California own patents from the research?
I expect there's a lot of intellectual property with some of these [treatments] that will be really big returns for California. But it'll take some time; the so-called blockbuster treatments will take 10 years or more. Gov. [
The big story about CIRM last year was its conflict-of-interest protocols. What's being done?
The [national] Institute of Medicine gave CIRM management strong positives. They had issues on conflict of interest. They felt if the [schools represented by] deans of medicine on the board were the recipient of CIRM [grants], they were potentially in a conflict of interest. The board decided to take away the [grant-making] vote for those [members, at least temporarily]. They also had a view that if the patient advocates [on the board] were strongly advocating for [research for] a disease, that was another kind of conflict. They [changed] some patient advocate roles in some grant selection process. I didn't see this as a problematic issue, but from the point of view of the Institute of Medicine, it didn't look right, and I can understand that. Much has been done to correct that.
You and your wife got married so that she could come here and work.
We didn't really feel it was necessary; we'd been together 20 years and have two lovely boys, but she couldn't come to America without being married to me. She's a scientist — not a stem cell scientist — but [once she got here] she couldn't work at universities in California because of [potential CIRM] conflicts of interest. So she's back in Australia, doing her work and loving it, but it's not optimum. But this is an important job which I promised to do.
Do you get letters from people with diseases asking for help?
All the time. I try to be supportive and send them to talk to the best people in that area. There would be dozens a week who write to me.
You have a
What do you hear from your colleagues around the world about what California's doing?
They always say, "You've got the best job in the world. How did California do this?" That's California. California is a can-do place, and when they want something, they stand up and do it. Many of [my colleagues] want to come to California. It's just a wonderful place. You could sail it off the coast of America and it would be the most wonderful country in the world.