Renewal: Stem cells and the next five years

Harvard President Drew Faust described “Renewal: Stem Cells and the Next Five Years” as “one of those ‘only at Harvard’ moments.” And that is indeed what the gathering at the Harvard Business School was.

In her introductory remarks to the audience of special friends of HSCI, President Faust explained, “we are going to listen to four of the world’s leading stem cell researchers participate in an informal conversation about the future of stem cell biology,” she said. “I cannot overstate the importance of their contributions to this critical emerging field – a field that promises to bring us towards cures that only a few years ago would have been more than even unimaginable.”

After reviewing HSCI scientific accomplishments of the past five years, President Faust concluded: “I can only wonder what the next breakthrough will be. What I know, however, is that more breakthroughs will be coming out of our labs – and whatever happens next, Harvard’s commitment to this effort is unwavering. The success of our stem cell scientists in forging a cohesive community, in crossing traditional disciplinary, departmental, school, and organizational boundaries – as well as their success in the laboratory – is a model for modern science.”

The “only at Harvard moment” to which President Faust referred was not the usual lecture or panel discussion, but rather an on-stage conversation among HSCI Co-Director Doug Melton, PhD, HSCI’s Translational Medicine Program Director Lee Rubin, PhD, and HSCI Principal Faculty member Konrad Hochedlinger, PhD, who is also a member of the institute’s iPS Core steering committee. Moderated by HSCI Co-Director David Scadden, MD, the three researchers talked about how the next five years will see much more emphasis on the use of stem cells as tools to study diseases and as targets for drug development.

As Rubin explained, “we can now get skin cells from any person in the world, from a patient with a specific disease, and get billions of cells that will have that disease of interest. That was never possible before, and the fact that it is more possible at Harvard than at any other place in the world convinced me to come to Harvard.”

“We want to change the way diseases are studied and we think this is the better way,” Rubin added, noting that his group will be working with other HSCI researchers to screen for drug targets for a number of orphan diseases. “Not only are we trying to implement a new paradigm for drug discovery,” he said, “but we are trying to do work that’s never been done before” in academia.

The panel also talked about how important cross-lab, cross-institu- tional collaboration has been to the success of the Institute to date. HSCI Faculty in the audience, Paola Arlotta, PhD, Kevin Eggan, PhD, Richard Lee, MD, Anthony Rosenzweig, MD, and Greg Verdine, PhD, shared examples about how work in their areas had benefited from such collaboration and also gave their perspectives on new areas of scientific excitement. HBS professor and host William Sahlman concluded the event with a reminder to the audience about the value of an “investment” in HSCI to date and how the “payoff” should increase even more in the future as the new areas of research that were discussed bear fruit.