09 Sep Human stem cells called great opportunity for drug discovery
Madison, Wis. – While human stem cells offer potential therapeutic value — an arena that has become politically overcharged, the more immediate benefit from research into such cells will likely come through their use in drug discovery.
It’s an area that for many years has been steeped in the use of mouse cells, which have proved invaluable for research since disease works within the context of cells.
But, as the goal of such research is advances in human health, drug discovery research needs to move more toward the study of human cells, a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and students heard Thursday from a senior director of Pfizer Global Research and Development.
“Mouse embryonic stem cells are a tremendous resource,” said John McNeish of Pfizer’s Exploratory Medicinal Sciences area. “But it’s obvious that we are doing this to treat human diseases.” And, thus, it’s human cells that should become the focus of drug discovery research, he added, saying that “human adult stem cells are proving to be an important alternative, and we want to explore this area more fully.”
McNeish was brought to UW to speak to members of the Stem Cell Research program here. He was introduced by Gabriela Cezar, who recently joined the program through her new position as an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences. Cezar, who formerly worked for McNeish at Pfizer, noted that he was nearly a Badger, having signed on to do post doctorate work with Oliver Smithies just as Smithies was about to transfer from UW to the University of North Carolina.
Researchers see strong potential for drug discovery via human stem cell work, which, for example, could involve engineering cells to have specific disease characteristics and then testing drugs on those cells.
“There is a lot of promise for stem cell drug discovery,” he said.
The other big issue is safety, McNeish told the UW audience. “Drug safety is a big issue,” he observed. “If we can use human materials, we might see something that we did not see in mice cells,” he added.
While the use of mouse stem cells has been the focus of the drug discovery process, use of adult human cells can more finely focus that process and offers a number of advantages, including limitless quantity and unrestricted availability, normal growth, normal genetic structure, and a uniform physiological response.
Research already is being conducted on human stem cells and, in some areas, on embryonic stem cells. European scientists this summer announced the creation of pure nerve stem cells from human embryonic stem cells, with the hope expressed that such new cells could help scientists find treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In Scotland, University of Edinburgh professor Austin Smith told the BBC that, “We’re already talking with the bio-technology and bio-pharmaceutical companies about taking these cells into screening systems for new drugs. Hopefully that will come to pass within two to three years.”
It’s a different situation in the U.S., where scientists face restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research and where the politics and public debate have stymied work. That environment also affects the drug industry that may shy away from such research due to public pressures, members of Thursday’s seminar audience said. And it was noted that drug companies, as businesses and publicly held companies, are looking at how the debate would affect their financial viability.
McNeish encouraged university researchers to continue their stem cell work, saying they are in the best position to advance elements of the work. “How do we say that human cell-derived neurons are better than what we have in place?” he asked the UW researchers. “We can’t do that research; you can.”