Thomas B. Okarma
Position: President and CEO, Geron
Issue: Embryonic-stem-cell and cloning research. The U.S. political climate is proving inhospitable to biomedical research that could benefit millions, and other nations are jumping in to fill the void.
Personal Point of Impact: Over 20 years of research to create commercial cell-based therapies.
Technology Review: Human embryonic stem cells, primitive cells with the ability to form every type of tissue, could lead to effective treatments or even cures for ailments such as heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and spinal-cord injury. But creating the cells requires destroying human embryos, a hugely controversial issue. How do you address that?
Tom Okarma: These cells are derived from embryos created using in vitro fertilization that are donated under informed consent by couples who no longer need them to achieve pregnancy. For the couple, their choice is threefold: have the extra embryos stored frozen, forever; have them destroyed; or donate them for research. Our whole justification for trying to develop this field isn’t that we don’t have regard for the sensitive issues of creation of life. It’s because in that unused embryo is the most incredible cell ever discovered, a cell that solves the technical, commercial, economic, and medical problems that have prevented cell therapy from making it in the past 20 years. The fact that one embryo produces untold billions of cells for thousands of patients’ therapies is enormous ethical leverage. A master cell bank of embryonic stem cells can make enough dopamine-producing neurons for 10 million Parkinson’s patients. That is beyond our wildest dreams, even three years ago!
TR: One argument you hear quite a lot is that experiments by academic researchers have shown that stem cells from adult tissues, such as bone marrow cells, can be transformed into all these cell types, too. So why use embryonic stem cells?
Okarma: Well, first of all, no one has actually shown that. That is a misinterpretation of the data. With this kind of research, you’re asking a cell that is naturally programmed, let’s say, to make blood-to use the most commonly cited adult stem cell-and you’re trying to turn it into a liver cell or a heart cell or a brain cell. These cells are not programmed to do that. So even if you are able to belt those cells over the head to make a half a percent of them morph into heart muscle cells or neurons, those cells are not making that transition in a scalable way. So you’ll never be able to address the market with that kind of process. You’re back to an individualized, case-by-case therapy, back to the old bone marrow transplant model.