Stem cell research - Bridging the "Valley of Death"
I was at one of them, at the Science Media Centre in London. I've talked before about the promise of stem cells. The potential is so great that this area of medicine gets a huge amount of media attention. A group of stem cell experts met with the science minister David Willetts to argue the case for more government funding to help turn stem cell ideas into reality - all very difficult a month before the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).
Professor Chris Mason, chair of the BIA Regenerative Medicine Industry Group said although investment returns are likely to be 15 years off, it was vital that government supported the move from the discovery phase to commercialisation. He said: "We must break the UK mantra of invented here and commercialised elsewhere".
David Willetts did announce more funding for regenerative medicine, but the exact amount will depend on the CSR. The cash, which maybe in the region of £10 million, will be used from next year to fund competition by companies trying to bring new treatments to the marketplace. Mr Willetts said: "I accept that stem cells and regenerative medicine have enormous potential for patients and for economic growth."
Whilst any funding will be useful, it's worth pointing out that the cost of bringing a new drug to market is up to £600m.
Professor Pete Coffey from the London Project to Cure Blindness at University College London said everyone was expecting a significant overall cut in government support following the CSR. Professor Coffey is hoping to use stem cells to treat age-related macular degeneration. He said he'd had concrete offers to move his research abroad, but remained loyal to the UK where he was born and educated. But he said if there were funding cuts of more that 10% he would have to lay-off members of his team. He said: "Other parts of the world, like California and Singapore are looking very attractive and the pressures here are becoming enormous." California has had $3 billion of state support for stem cell research over the past decade with around the same level again given in philanthropic grants. Professor Coffey said Singapore had recently unveiled a $10 billion (US dollar) programme for regenerative medicine, including major funding for diseases of the eye.
Sir Richard Sykes, Chair of the UK Stem Cell Foundation said Britain had always been good at fundamental research but not good at translating it. Sir Richard, a former head of GlaxoSmithKline, said there was a danger that British scientists would be attracted to research centres in Shanghai, California and elsewhere. He said there was a serious funding gap between discovery and translation - what people call "the Valley of Death" which a combination of government support and philanthropic donations could help to bridge.
Successful stem cell therapies have been around a long time - such as bone marrow transplants. More recently, stem cells have been used with tissue scaffolds to repair damaged organs like the windpipe. There have been promising trials using stem cells in the heart and liver. But given the danger of hyping stem cells at this early stage, I wondered when I would be able to walk into my GP surgery to ask for my kidney, liver or joints to be repaired. Sadly, it's not likely to be anytime soon.
David Bott from the Technology Strategy Board which funds UK innovation, said all emerging technologies disappoint in the short-term and over-deliver in the long term.
"If you live for the next 30 years you will probably benefit from this", he said cheerily. I will do my best, but it is a reminder that, for the foreseeable future, most regenerative medicine remains confined to the bench rather than the bedside.