I attended CHI's Third Annual CELLutions summit in Boston August 11-13, 2008. Here's my 10 take-away items (in no particular order) bridged from my notes* :
1. David J. Mooney (Harvard School of Engineering & Applied Sciences) and team are bringing together disciplines in a way that may revolutionize cell therapy but are not yet hitting the headlines.
In mouse models they are currently loading biodegradable devices ex vivo with human PBMCs or cordblood-derived MNCs on a matrix to affect muscular regeneration or angiogenesis. The cells multiply inside the device and are then activated (via loaded agents) to migrate at a controlled rate undifferentiated into the region, then differentiate, and affect a therapeutic target.
The next generation device is intended to be implanted and then recruit cells in vivo rather than rely on cells being loaded ex vivo thus avoiding all the regulatory, technical, and scientific challenges of ex vivo cell manipulation. Early research has used the devise to generate immune responses by loading the device with antigen and APC activators for targeting cancer. This was definitely the technology-to-watch presentation of the conference.
2. One of the strengths of the conference has always been that it throws people in a room together that might not otherwise interact - from tissue engineering, cells-as-tools, cell therapy, etc. In keeping with point #1, interdisciplinary research is where some of most exciting research is happening today building on solid progress in each of the disciplines.
3. Unfettered optimism has been beaten out of all but the most inexperienced. There is much caution about ensuring there is no overreaching and little hype in presentations and projections. While this occasionally comes across almost like pessimism, keep in mind these are still people betting their careers on the sector - they're not THAT negative.
4. While there is no doubt that costs are higher for autologous therapies making investors less excited about them as a model than allogeneic therapies, price is the other 1/2 of the equation defining profit margin. Furthermore the cost differential may not be a as great as most believe depending on the therapy and particularly when compared to a point-of-care (PoC) model.
It is certainly too early to predict the end of the future of autologous cell therapies. For those using this as an excuse for their fear of a new business model -- we understand...
5. We still have yet to have a sustained and focused discussion on the business of cell therapies. As is so often the case, the commercial aspects of the sector was relegated to the last session of the conference when many had already left. This is regrettably typical. We need a conference primarily focused on the business side of the sector - business models, reimbursement, IP, leadership, financing, etc.
6. The war over MSCs (whatever that acronym has come to mean) is warming up but has real potential to get real hot. The true battle may emerge only once there is money to chase. Here's hoping constructive negotiations win the day and litigation does not crush the benefits of all the progress in the field. If there is no IP crusher, will MSCs quickly become a commodity? With so many MSCs out there from all sorts of sources working relatively similarly, will the real winners simply be determined by the marketplace?
7. 3D models and the companies that have them are about to make a significant impact in drug testing.
8. The work on iPS cells and hESCs are both incredible science a long way from the clinic and companies trying to race to the clinic with these cells would do well to study the lessons to be learned from the first generation of cell therapy and tissue engineering companies that commercialized products much earlier than could be done successfully/profitably.
9. Women in science are shattering the glass ceiling. I chaired what was a great panel discussion to end the conference and all 3 panelists were very experienced (but very young looking!) biotechnology executives in the cell therapy sectors.
10. Fenway Park is a rare time capsule of Americana that should be treated as a national treasure!
Just my thoughts...