West Coast Editor
SAN FRANCISCO - "Risk and uncertainty combined with powerful promise on an international scale" might be the most concise way to summarize the message from the International Symposium on Stem Cell Collaboration, which, during a single day, managed to bring together a variety of experts.
Held at the Mission Bay Conference Center at the University of California at San Francisco, the event featured as a guest speaker by video Roger Pedersen, formerly of UCSF, where his work in genetics - begun in 1971 and lasting three decades - led him into studies of human embryos and stem cells.
Pedersen, now the director of the Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at the University of Cambridge, UK, was hardly the only speaker to mention "the sad story emerging from Korea" for months now, a reference to data faked by researcher Woo Suk Hwang and his team to support the claim that they had cloned human embryos to provide embryonic stem cell lines. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 11, 2006.)
But Pedersen also echoed the hope expressed by others at the conference, a hope that cuts across national borders, even as he explained his departure from U.S. academia with a country-specific reason.
"At the moment that I left UCSF for Cambridge, the U.S. government was in fact not providing any support for embryonic stem cell research," he said. "If you will, it was like being in a business with one customer, that being the state of California," which was funding his work through its BioStart program, with a private sponsor in Menlo Park, Calif.-based Geron Corp.
"Had that funding ceased for any reason whatsoever, I and all of the employees in my laboratory would have ceased to have careers, more or less overnight," he said, so the move overseas became a business decision. The money situation since has changed, Pedersen noted, and his efforts at Cambridge have yielded more diversified funding, even receiving as much as $30 million from the U.S.
One member of the audience asked what it would take for the widely missed Pedersen to return.
"I don't really feel I left because I can visit you like this," he said, gesturing to the video camera. "Don't try too hard [to get me back]," he added, and pointed to the importance of an international push.
Pedersen called for an exchange program that would let "the brilliant young scientists from California visit other laboratories. Something like the Rhodes scholarships, for example, or the Gates scholarships," offered by Oxford and Cambridge, respectively.
Researchers checking out other labs would "enable California to tap into the progress that's being made quite rapidly now at other places." He urged the state, meanwhile, to forge ahead with government-funded stem cell work.
For his part, Pedersen seemed ready to stay put.
"I feel I'm able to accomplish a great deal by working here in the UK, perhaps even more than if I were in San Francisco," he said, though the environment in which he operates now is "highly restrictive. This is something that is not [well] appreciated outside the UK. The regulatory environment is perhaps the strictest one in the world."
In order to get the go-ahead for research on embryos, such as making an embryonic stem cell line, a scientist must apply to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, he said, and failure to comply with terms dictated by the HFEA can mean prison.
Wherever in the world they happen to be, remarked Jeff Newman as he introduced a panel discussion, people working with stem cells represent "those among us who are compelled to create large-scale social change from where they stand."
Newman, technology and commerce partnership manager for the California Business Transportation and Housing Agency, moderated a discussion that sought to zero in on the bottom line - the business prospects for stem cell research, still in its early stages.
"We came up with a scenario with regard to the financial landscape," he said. "We're assuming a 10-year payback as a reasonable expectation. This is for the investor community. And within that scenario, companies are starting to move now, should start to move now, and the venture capitalists would come down three to five years down the road."
The one-day stem cell symposium, organized and co-sponsored by the San Francisco-based Women's Technology Cluster, ended Tuesday. Other sponsors included Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and DNA Bridges, both of San Francisco.