In recent decades, several Nobel Prizes have been awarded in the field of stem cell and gene therapy research. But so far, the scientific promises have not or insufficiently been realised. Commercialisation appears to be much more difficult than we all thought at the time.
Many biotech companies in this field have been wound up or have stopped and major pharmaceutical companies have withdrawn from the projects. For the pharmaceutical companies, an interesting business model is mainly based on good patent protection and a medicine that can ultimately be sold in a bottle or box. I am currently seeing a lot of cold feet when it comes to stepping into new, promising projects.
In California, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger invested 3 billion dollars of government money in the past decade to make stem cell research flourish and to force breakthroughs. Almost no commercial success can be reported there either.
It’s just such a special domain. For example, it involves growing stem cells outside the human body, which are given back to a patient. Needless to say, this is a subject surrounded by many ethical, legal and safety risks. The lack of commercial breakthroughs is definitely not down to the level of science or IP. The only thing is that we, the scientists, may have presented matters a bit too positively to stimulate the market.
Venture capitalists, biotechs, pharmaceutical companies, the government and scientists now have to work together again in a new way. There is so much valuable knowledge and the possible breakthroughs are so enormous that humanity should really make use of this. It’s about time we started experimenting on the business side. Rules will need to be changed, development paths of companies will have to change and scientists will have to ensure that they have something to test. Only then will we put a stop to 30 years of failing initiatives.
Fortunately, I’ve noticed that products in the field of gene therapy are now really on their way. Bigger trials are being conducted with good results. This mostly involves administering DNA, which basically is a chemical. And it’s those chemicals – which, after all, is what medicine ingredients are too – that are closer to the business models of the pharmaceutical sector than living cells from people.
Researcher and Group Leader at Hubrecht Institute
Scientific Director at Prinsess Máxima Center for pediatric oncology
Former President of KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences).