Stem Cell Expert Visits MSU

Mar 14, 2012

A leading expert on stem cell research and in vitro fertilization has visited MSU. Alan Trounson was the first scientist to freeze human embryos for womb implantation. He is now the president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, the stem cell research agency funded by California voters a few years ago. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with him yesterday and asked him first about the lag between lab research and actual medical cures.

ALAN TROUNSON: It’s rather problematic because once you start talking about potential treatments for patients, then patients and people who are their carers really want those treatments straight away. But there’s a very long process from discovery which requires you to do an awful lot of work to prove that whatever candidate you’re working with, whatever cell or whatever drug, is safe and is also, can be shown to be effective and efficient in treating the disease.

So, you can’t actually get that through to the patients without going through that very long process, and that’s normally around ten to fifteen years. So, CIRM’s been operating for only five-and-a-half years so, so you can see that yes, there is a difficulty in that area. And it’s natural, because patients really need these treatments. And people have very short term objectives these days, particularly politicians. But many of us really don’t see much further than five years.

MELISSA BENMARK: And because there is so much politics surrounding this, of course, a presidential campaign year, a lot of social issues coming up. Candidate Newt Gingrich  recently called for federal ethics guidelines for in vitro fertilization. Do you see this carrying into your work, into what you’re doing? What kind of public sentiment do you foresee in the future?

TROUNSON: I don’t believe it’ll have much of an impact on us in California because we’re actually embedded in the Constitution. So, I don’t think it will affect us, but it might affect other parts of the country. And, of course, in different states they could respond differently. I think that would be terribly unfortunate because, you know, we’re about to get quite a lot of treatments moving to Phase One studies, safety studies in a clinic. And I think people, if these are shown to be safe and effective in the long term, then you’d really want people all over the world, not just in California, to benefit.

BENMARK: Opponents of embryonic stem cell research say that adult stem cell research should be explored instead of embryonic because it doesn’t destroy embryos. What are your thoughts on that?

TROUNSON: I think we should explore every means towards helping people who’ve got very serious diseases and injuries. I don’t think it should be limited to any particular approach. I’m much in favor of trying to help people. And while there are, I don’t know how many spare embryos in the United States in the freezer that are going to be discarded, that certainly five or six years ago, 400,000, so I assume it’s on the order of a million now…we’ve used maybe 180. So it’s really not a very significant component in terms of an argument for that. Because once you form the embryonic stem cell lines, they’re immortal, you can keep growing them and growing them.

So, these were embryos that would have been discarded anyway. And if the benefits, we can show really practical and important benefits to patients, I’m very supportive of that. But I’m also supportive of adult stem cell research, where the proper experiments show that there’s a benefit, and it’s regulated in the appropriate way.

BENMARK: Do you have a particular hope for a particular cure that strikes close to your heart, or is it just kind of generally advancing the science that motivates you?

TROUNSON: No, I mean, I think, you know, things strike you personally, importantly. I mean, I have a brother with HIV/AIDS. I had a mother who died of pulmonary fibrosis, of lung disease. And I’d love to see some progress on those conditions. But I see, you know, the important parts of this, that I think a real range of opportunities will evolve. And hopefully some of those will be my aspirations, but I’m sure they’d be the aspirations of many people who might listen to this.