Last week in Miami, more than 450 researchers, physicians, lawyers, ethicists, and executives gathered from far-flung corners of the globe to share the latest updates in stem cell research and regenerative medicine. Sure, a science conference might not seem as glamorous as a celebrity-filled Madison Square Garden, but it's the place to be if you care about breakthroughs that could give you a longer and healthier life. Here are our top ten takeaways about what's hot and what's happening worldwide:
"The places you least expect will turn up to produce some really extraordinary things."
1) The future of stem cell treatment may involve the creation of a universal cell line that is genetically modified so every patient's immune system will accept it.
One of the leading scientists at the convention, Japanese stem cell pioneer Dr. Norio Nakatsuji, dubbed this quest a "very hot topic" right now. Being able to produce one safe cell line for everyone would be much cheaper and faster than having to create and grow patient-specific cells. "It is theoretically possible to genetically modify the lines so everyone can accept them," said Nakatsuji. A Seattle-based biotech company aptly named Universal Cells is leading the way in this promising area.
2) Japan was the world leader in stem cell research 10 years ago, but has since fallen behind the United States for reasons that some researchers find frustrating.
Japan is not a particularly religious society, so their culture does not object on principle to using donated human embryos for the creation of stem cells, and federal money can fund such research, unlike in the U.S. But the irony, according to Nakatsuji, is that the regulations for researchers are still very cumbersome. "We need to clear many probably unnecessary steps," he said. For example, before starting work in the field, new graduate students need special training and ethics lectures, and must be cleared by a committee; the process could take six months before an experiment can start, whereas in a country like Britain, scientists can immediately begin.
Also: back in 2006, a Japanese researcher who later won the Nobel Prize managed to reprogram 4 genes in adult cells and essentially turn back time, reversing the cells back to an embryonic state. The implications of this breakthrough were enormous, because destroying an embryo was no longer required to generate blank cells with unlimited potential—and these cells could now be created directly from a patient.
But then "a very unfortunate situation" happened in Japan, says Nakatsuji. There was a fever for these induced pluripotent (iPS) cells, and many Japanese researchers thought embryonic stem cell research was no longer important.
"This is a misconception," Nakatsuji lamented. "You do need both cell types." Embryonic stem cells, unlike their artificially made alternatives, are still safer and more reliable. A symbolic example, he said, is that groups in the U.S. and Europe are starting trials for Parkinson's disease that require dopamine-secreting neurons from stem cells. The researchers could have chosen iPS cells, but went with embryonic stem cells.
The main advantage now of iPS cells, Nakatsuji said, is not for therapeutic purposes, but for drug discovery and creating models of disease based on specific patient profiles.
Dr. Norio Nakatsuji receiving an award for international leadership from Bernard Siegel, the founder and director of the Regenerative Medicine Foundation.
3) In China, rampant stem cell tourism in 2009 led to disaster and a total government shutdown, from which the research field is only recently starting to recover.
Stem cell therapy in China "used to be totally unethical but then took a shock and is still recovering from that shock," said Dr. Wenchun Qu, a physician-researcher at the Mayo Clinic. Scam clinics profited off unapproved and unproven treatments which killed some patients until the total ban set in. Now, the research field is slowly coming back on board under strict regulation; there were only 35 clinical trial with stem cells in 2016, whereas in the U.S, there were more than 2000.
"A lack of public trust and deception is the number one factor" in China's falling behind, said Dr. Yen-Michael Hsu of Weill Cornell. "China is catching up trying to rebuild trust with the taxpayers."
As of last November, 102 designated institutions in China can conduct stem cell research only--not offer commercialized treatments. Bottom line: China is advancing fast in basic science and even leading in some areas, yet is trailing other countries in translational studies and clinical practice.
4) The Bahamas is emerging as a hub of legitimate research that is attracting innovative new trials.
A regulatory framework and National Stem Cell Ethics Committee were established around 2013, and since then, clinical research in the Bahamas has begun; the focus is on safety and efficacy, with standards high enough to satisfy the FDA, but also streamlined enough to allow for trials to proceed faster than they might in other countries.
One U.S.-based company, Advanced Regen Medical Technologies, is pursuing a proprietary cell culture that rejuvenates old cells by exposing them to young donor cells, with the goal of extending healthy living. On May 24th, 2017, the company presented to the National Stem Cell Ethics Committee, and on December 15th, they treated their first patient.
"Here's an indication that would be frankly impossible to get through the FDA and certainly not without many years of pain," said Marc Penn, a leader of the company's executive team. "We were able to get through the National Stem Cell Ethics Committee with all of us feeling good about the level of rigor within a seven-to-eight month span."
Desiree Cox, the chairwoman of the Committee, stressed the selectiveness and rigor with which the Bahamas is approaching new trial applications. Of 20 proposed stem cell trials, they have approved only four.
"We're interested in first-in-man studies, things that are breaking the boundaries, going beyond what is already done elsewhere, linking to predictive analytics," she said. "The places you least expect will turn up to produce some really extraordinary things."
Another active clinical trial there is a phase 1 study for Aging Frailty run by a Miami-based start-up called Longeveron. "Our experience is it comes as a huge relief to many people to have the opportunity to go to such a program rather than wait for a drug to be approved in the U.S.," said Dr. Joshua Hare, the director of the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute at the University of Miami and the co-founder and Chief Science Officer at Longeveron.
"The challenge right now is the effective translation and development of viable stem-cell based therapies."
5) Researchers are working on building an artificial heart with stem cells, but technology is not the only hurdle.
A group at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston is experimenting with this strategy: stripping a real heart organ of its cells, then repopulating it with blood-forming stem cells, and implanting it. In cows, this approach has worked successfully. But one problem, said Dr. Doris Taylor, the director of Regenerative Medicine Research at the Institute, is educating regulators, since this kind of treatment is not a drug and not a device.
That said, when will we see someone order a heart off the shelf?
"I think in the next two years," she said, "you will see exciting things happening at least at the level of congenital heart disease, if not adult hearts."
6) Cost is a major barrier to regenerative medicine's success.
"It's not about whether you can get enough of the cells you need, it's about whether you can get them for less than one million dollars," Taylor said wryly.
Cell therapies intended for patients must be manufactured in a special facility to generate the quantity necessary for treatment. Some experts expressed concerned that these bio-manufacturing facilities are like "the Wild West" right now because there is no standard for pricing.
Some companies are "getting away with murder," said Dr. Camillo Ricordi, director of the Diabetes Research Institute. "This doesn't happen in most of the rest of the world."
7) Media hype has caused the premature (and potentially dangerous) commercialization of unproven stem cell therapies.
There are now over 570 such clinics operating in the U.S., with hot spots in Florida and California, which offer up stem cells for everything from sports medicine and vitamins to beauty products and pet health.
In fact, according to the FDA, the only stem cell-based products currently approved for use consist of blood-forming stem cells derived from cord blood. Everything else, for now, is still experimental.
While plenty of legitimate research is moving ahead in clinical trials, consumers may be confused by the plethora of scam clinics. But since last August, the FDA has begun cracking down, issuing three enforcement actions.
Also worth noting: what the marketplace refers to as "stem cells" are in fact products that contain a very low amount of concentrated adult stem cells derived from fat or bone marrow. There are no pure stem cell products out there.
"The challenge right now is the effective translation and development of viable stem-cell based therapies," said Dr. Shane Shapiro, a sports medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic.
What constitutes a genetically modified organism? Europe is in the process of deciding.
8) An exciting coming trend is induced tissue regeneration.
The company AgeX, run by gerontologist and stem cell pioneer Dr. Mike West, is in preclinical trials for a treatment that can reset the regenerative potential of mature tissue.
This ability is lost in the early stages of life to help prevent cancer, but AgeX is interested in figuring out a way to restore it with pluripotent stem cells in adult tissue, to correct the damage incurred by aging. West said he expects the program to reach human clinical trials in the next five years.
9) Stem cells alone are not the whole story.
The future of cell therapy will involve cell derivatives—the things that cells secrete, like exosomes, microRNA, and viruses, that can be better controlled than the cells themselves.
Exosomes, which are extracellular vesicles released from cells, act as fingerprints that are useful for diagnosis and therapy, said Dr. Li Chen, the head of the Human Liver Cell Lab at the University of California-San Diego. Because exosomes are smaller than cells, they can also cross the blood-brain barrier.
Europe is the leading place for exosome research. Recently, a 21-year-old boy suffering from brain cancer there was treated with stem cell therapy, which failed, but then subsequently he received surgery with exosomes applied to his tumor, and he survived.
10) The European Union is in the process of deciding what legally constitutes a "genetically modified organism" – and the stakes are high.
The European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court, is considering this question: If a modification brought about by genetic engineering technology could also have occurred naturally, should the resulting organism be considered a GMO?
Just last week, an advocate general of the court proposed that whenever an organism is manmade that could theoretically occur naturally, it should not be considered a GMO, and therefore should not be subjected to such regulations.
If the Court agrees with the advice of its advocate general later this year, then the decision would have huge implications for biotech agriculture across Europe, paving the way for gene-edited crops to hit the market.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.