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Will the next generation think about diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes the way we think about polio and the whooping cough? Susan Solomon, the co-founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF), certainly hopes so. In this fascinating talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Solomon delves into the foundation’s work on research with stem cells, which she calls the “black boxes for diseases.”
“[Stem cells] are our bodies’ own repair kits. They are pluripotent, which means they can morph into all of the cells in our bodies,” says Solomon. “Right now there are some really extraordinary things that we are doing with stem cells that are completely changing the way we model disease, our ability to understand why we get sick and even develop drugs. But … this field has been under siege, politically and financially.”
While much of the fray is about embryonic stem cells — still the gold standard when it comes to cells — Solomon explains that another type of pluripotent stem cell (called iPS cells) can now be created by, essentially, reprogramming skin cells. These cells hold great promise for allowing researchers to see how diseases develop in humans, rather than in rodents.
Currently, developing a drug takes an average of 13 years, costs $4 billion, and has a 99% failure rate. And because it’s impossible to test a new drug on a large and representative sample of the human population, even a drug that tests well with many people will have side-effects for others, based on their genetic makeup. This is a problem that’s sometimes not apparent until the drug is on the market and being prescribed to patients — like in the tragic case of Vioxx.
“That’s a terrible business model, but also is a horrible social model,” she says. “The way we’ve been developing drugs is essentially like going into a shoe store and no one asking what size you are … They just say, ‘Well, you have feet. Here are shoes.’”
From the TEDGlobal stage, Solomon outlined an exciting new approach—her team at NYSCF has developed a machine that creates stem cell linesthat, until now, had to be crafted by hand. NYSCF expects to produce 2,500 stem cell lines by the end of the year. The idea is to eventually produce a comprehensive array of 25,000 stem cell lines — which act like avatars for a wide sample of people — that researchers would have access to as they test new drugs. This could help avoid disasters and also let people know ahead of time of what side-effects they, specifically, can expect with a given medicine.
Two months after her talk, Solomon tells the TED Blog that interest in NYSCF work is growing. Pointing to a recent article in The New York Timesabout how future lung cancer treatments could be tailored to individuals, Solomon said, “It’s really the leading edge of where this field is going.”
But Solomon stressed that it will be extremely difficult to change the current systems of drug development.
“All the established companies have been using mouse-and-rodent testing forever,” she said. “A lot of people’s careers are staked to a method that is outdated. It’s like the tech sector; this is really the high-tech sector for biomedical research.”
To hear more about the NYSCF, watch Solomon’s talk. Below, watch 9 more talks about the incredible promise of stem cells.