Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You

Posted by Jesse Reynolds August 3, 2007
Biopolitical Times
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.

But Keirstead's inaccurate choice of target in his response is not surprising. For years, Geron has been his "corporate partner," and it's his work on spinal cords, funded by Geron, that the company plans to use for its trials. On top of that, Keirstead owns the patent from this work for which Geron holds an exclusive license - something it seems he's failed to disclose in his numerous scientific papers on the topic.

What's more, he's been accused - even by fellow scientists - of excessive hype and haste.

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.

The video was cited by numerous proponents of the state initiative, including the paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, who pronounced, "Stem cells have already cured paralysis in animals." In its first round of major research grants, the California program awarded Keirstead a $2.4 million grant [PDF], courtesy of the taxpayers.

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.