Health TED Talks

10 talks on the future of stem cell medicine

Will the next generation think about diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes the way we think about polio and the whooping cough? Susan Solomon, the co-founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF), certainly hopes so. In this fascinating talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Solomon delves into the foundation’s work on research with stem cells, which she calls the “black boxes for diseases.”

“[Stem cells] are our bodies’ own repair kits. They are pluripotent, which means they can morph into all of the cells in our bodies,” says Solomon. “Right now there are some really extraordinary things that we are doing with stem cells that are completely changing the way we model disease, our ability to understand why we get sick and even develop drugs. But … this field has been under siege, politically and financially.”

While much of the fray is about embryonic stem cells — still the gold standard when it comes to cells — Solomon explains that another type of pluripotent stem cell (called iPS cells) can now be created by, essentially, reprogramming skin cells. These cells hold great promise for allowing researchers to see how diseases develop in humans, rather than in rodents.

Currently, developing a drug takes an average of 13 years, costs $4 billion, and has a 99% failure rate. And because it’s impossible to test a new drug on a large and representative sample of the human population, even a drug that tests well with many people will have side-effects for others, based on their genetic makeup. This is a problem that’s sometimes not apparent until the drug is on the market and being prescribed to patients — like in the tragic case of Vioxx.

“That’s a terrible business model, but also is a horrible social model,” she says. “The way we’ve been developing drugs is essentially like going into a shoe store and no one asking what size you are … They just say, ‘Well, you have feet. Here are shoes.’”

From the TEDGlobal stage, Solomon outlined an exciting new approach—her team at NYSCF has developed a machine that creates stem cell lines that, until now, had to be crafted by hand. NYSCF expects to produce 2,500 stem cell lines by the end of the year. The idea is to eventually produce a comprehensive array of 25,000 stem cell lines — which act like avatars for a wide sample of people — that researchers would have access to as they test new drugs. This could help avoid disasters and also let people know ahead of time of what side-effects they, specifically, can expect with a given medicine.

Two months after her talk, Solomon tells the TED Blog that interest in NYSCF work is growing. Pointing to a recent article in The New York Times about how future lung cancer treatments could be tailored to individuals, Solomon said, “It’s really the leading edge of where this field is going.”

But Solomon stressed that it will be extremely difficult to change the current systems of drug development.

“All the established companies have been using mouse-and-rodent testing forever,” she said. “A lot of people’s careers are staked to a method that is outdated. It’s like the tech sector; this is really the high-tech sector for biomedical research.”

To hear more about the NYSCF, watch Solomon’s talk. Below, watch 9 more talks about the incredible promise of stem cells.

Susan Lim: Transplant cells, not organs
As a woman, surgeon Susan Lim had to fight for the right to perform the first liver transplant in Asia. But she began to question the morality of such work given that — with donor organs in such short supply — many are coerced or forced to donate. Lim began looking at another approach: transplanting cells, rather than organs. In this talk, given at the INK Conference, she describes her work with adult stem cells derived from fat.

Daniel Kraft invents a better way to harvest bone marrow
Pediatrician and stem cell researcher Daniel Kraft has created a device to collect bone marrow in a way that is far less painful for both the patient and the doctor. In this talk from TED2009, Kraft shows how the stem cells found in this marrow could be used to treat heart disease and Parkinson’s.

Eva Vertes: Do stem cells cause cancer?
Microbiology prodigy Eva Vertes was 19 years old when she spoke at TED2005 about a theory that cancer might be a repair response to damaged stem cells in the lungs, liver, bones, etc. The implication she is testing? “It’s possible, although far-fetched, that in the future we could think of cancer being used as a therapy.”

Alan Russell: The potential of regenerative medicine
Not for the squeamish, in this talk from TED2006, medical futurist Alan Russell shows a video of stem cells being removed from a patient’s hip and injected directly into their heart — and how this procedure has gotten much more precise over a short time. Such cell regeneration therapies will keep improving, Russell says.

Noel Bairey Merz: The single biggest health threat women face
While heart disease is often thought of as a “male disease,” Noel Bairey Merz explains that it is actually the biggest killer of women. In this talk from TEDxWomen 2011, Merz gives a call to arms for women to think of heart disease in the same way we do breast cancer, and talks about some exciting possibilities for treatment, including stem cell therapy.

Daniel Kraft: Medicine’s future? There’s an app for that
Kraft, chair of the FutureMed program at Singularity University, talks about some of the big innovations coming down the pipeline in medicine. Near the end of this talk given at TEDxMaastricht, Kraft talks about cancer stem cells and how understanding them could lead to an era of personalized oncology — “the ability to leverage all of this data together, analyze the tumor and come up with a real, specific cocktail for the individual patient.”

Juan Enriquez: The next species of human
Futurist Juan Enriquez believes that some big changes are coming, and that the next generation of humans could potentially be considered a different species. Why? In this talk from TED2009, he looks at the ability to engineer both cells and tissue, and describes some shocking ways researchers are using stem cells.

Kevin Stone: The bio-future of joint replacement
Arthritis affects more adults than cancer, says Kevin Stone in this talk from TED2010. While therapies using human tissue have been very promising in helping joint damage, there simply isn’t enough donor tissue to go around. Stone explains a process which uses cartilage from a pig, loaded with a person’s own stem cells, to ease pain and immobility.

Iain Hutchison: Saving faces
In this talk from TEDGlobal 2010 — which contains some images of badly injured and disfigured faces that may be disturbing — facial surgeon Iain Hutchison gives a look at his groundbreaking work. Towards the end of the talk, he describes an promising area of research — tissue engineering — which uses a patient’s own stem cells, taken from their hip, to help heal facial damage.