My recent post citing the failed promises of Geron's CEO was picked up by Brandon Keim in his blog at Wired. Keim cited my list of statements by Ted Okarma, who over the course of four years has repeatedly promised that clinical trials of embryonic stem cells would begin "next year." Keim subsequently received this comment from Hans Keirstead, a prominent stem cell researcher at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center of the University of California:
I would also like you to know that I read a recent antagonistic article in your online journal concerning Geron's timeline to the clinic. I feel that you have done a tremendous disservice to the stem cell field in presenting Geron's path to the clinic as you did.
The truth is that Keim and I did little more than cite public statements made by Geron's chief executive. Isn't it Okarma who is disserving the stem cell field by misrepresenting the feasibility of Geron's stem cell clinical trials over and over again? No one in their right mind has ever doubted that it would take several years to get stem cell research to clinical trials. All Keim and I are asking for is a little truth in advertising. What biotech boosters such as Okarma and Keirstead continue to fail to mention is how many biotech companies to overplay their hands in order to keep share values high.
Yet Keirstead in 2002 himself said that the clinical trials would be "in about a year," i.e., one Okarma Unit away.
This approach has served Keirstead well. His promotional work in 2004 for California's Proposition 71 helped convince voters to pony up $3 billion to fund human embryonic stem cell research. In particular, he distributed a video of a paralyzed rat which had regained some capacity for movement after Keirstead's treatment, even though the research had yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. One reporter said:
Video footage of Keirstead's paralyzed rats walking after being
injected with the stem cell treatment got widespread attention during
the Proposition 71 campaign, and helped persuade voters that cures were
right around the corner.
That grant is only a quarter of he's expecting. From the New Yorker, just before the vote on Prop. 71:
Hans Keirstead, the spinal-cord-injury researcher, is among the scientists [Prop. 71 author and campaign chair Robert] Klein has cultivated. Keirstead is also an entrepreneur; he has started two biotech companies and sold one.... Geron provides him with training and cells, and made possible five hundred thousand of the seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars his lab receives annually. Still, he believes the passage of Prop 71 would change his life....
[Keirstead] pointed out that the way Klein has structured the initiative-and is selling it-he needs revenues to be generated by the end of the first five years, when the state must begin making payments on the loans. And if Keirstead's experiments go to clinical trials sometime in 2006, they might conceivably produce revenues by the time the state needs them-depending, of course, on what kind of deal the state was able to strike. Now Keirstead walked through the math. Say, three hundred million a year, of which perhaps fifty million would go into the construction of research facilities; divide twelve-"O.K., even say it's twenty major people, not twelve"-into two hundred and fifty million. "I could get at least ten million," he concluded. "It would be huge."
Given the magnitude of Keirstead's promotional activities, his undisclosed personal financial interest, and his own statement of clinical trials "in about a year" back in 2002, his pronouncements on the timeline for embryonic stem cell trials should receive the same skepticism as those of Okarma.
Unfortunately, he's now turning to cloning-based stem cell research - an area that is even more speculative and holds more risk than typical embryonic stem cell research.
If you are a returning visitor, you'll see that we've dramatically overhauled CGS's website and blog. It's been a long time in development, but the features are worth the wait. For example, all of our publications, newsletter articles, blog posts, and news articles are now tagged with multiple topics, allowing the reader to easily find related material. We now offer several RSS feeds for the blog and other parts of the website: one for the blog, one for the news articles, one for the features, and one that aggregates everything. If you have been monitoring this blog via an RSS feed on the earlier platform, you'll need to update your reader.
We've also added sharing services such as del.icio.us and Digg. For now, you'll need to click on the headline of a blog post before sharing it via these services. We plan to soon add the share services at the end of each post on the list view of the blog.
One drawback, however, is that all comments submitted on the previous blog platform were lost. We apologize for that.
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In a development eerily similar to the tragic death of Jesse Gelsinger, the FDA released a statement late last week reporting yet another gene therapy death - this time during a clinical trial run by Seattle-based Targeted Genetics. Broadly put, gene therapy is a biomedical technique designed to treat diseases by replacing damaged or nonfunctioning genes with ones that work. The patients enrolled in this clinical study were testing an investigational gene therapy product designed to treat arthritis. In the course of treatment, one patient suffered a severe adverse reaction leading to the trial's suspension. The patient died a few days later.Although few other details are available at this time, many questions are being asked such as why the FDA approved a clinical trial using a risky treatment to address a non-life threatening condition. Stay tuned to Biopolitical Times for updates on this matter as they become available. Check out the articles at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Reuters for more coverage. The FDA's statement can be found here.
Today, actor William Shatner, best known for playing Capt. James T. Kirk on the original Star Trek television series, gives a keynote presentation at Transvision, the annual meeting of the World Transhumanist Association. This selection is not surprising, not only because this year's theme is the humble "Transhumanity Saving Humanity: Inner Space to Outer Space", but also because transhumanists are clearly enamored with science fiction. Star Trek is a particularly popular franchise among those who hope that a qualitatively different future is at hand. In the various Star Trek TV series and movies, humanity overcame its fundamental weaknesses, united itself and other alien species, and established the United Federation of Planets to maintain peace and freedom throughout the galaxy. Soaking up such techno-utopian futuristic visions may lead impressionable boys, and impressionable men, to believe that developments such as mental uploading, immortality, and the Singularity really can solve all the world's social problems.
But I am curious if Shatner will remind his technophilic audience that, in the Star Trek canon, the development of human genetic engineering on Earth in the late twentieth century led to social domination by the enhanced "Augments," and subsequently a globally-devastating conflict, the Eugenics Wars.
Failing that, I hope that Shatner will at least refrain from serenading the audience.