As Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at the New York Stem Cell Foundation, Stephen Chang is one of the leading experts in gene therapy and neurodegenerative. Dr. Chang speaks with Brett Johnson on the state of the industry, explains what we can expect from the field in the future and offers his advice for investors and entrepreneurs who are active in the space.
Brett Johnson: Can you give an update as to what’s happened since we spoke last at the New York Stem Cell Foundation? Any developments?
Stephen Chang: It is exciting times. We are moving into a new facility that combines both a research institute as well as the research foundation. So, we will be all in one place in a centerpiece in New York.
BJ: What kinds of exciting things are you working on in terms of the science side?
SC: We are working on a lot of neurodegenerative diseases – Parkinson’s, Alzheimers and the eye diseases.
BJ: Has there been any progress in hopes of treatments for some these diseases in the coming years?
SC: Yes, I think the disease, and the dish-modeling that we’re doing is very accurate. We have a pretty accurate model which allows us to investigate new modes of therapy, and true systems, unlike many of the prior studies in animal models.
Creating stem cells from people with the actual disease allows us to accurately measure disease phenotypes in tissue culture, instead of in the patient. So, many times we don’t have access to patient material directly. It’s a wonderful technology – the ability to convert a person with a disease into diseased cells for modeling and personalization. We are right on the forefront of personalized medicine.
BJ: Is there a cost-savings and a time-savings by doing this?
SC: It’s a combination of all of those – having more accurate diagnostics and more accurate therapies and certainly being able to discover new things – its a tremendous cost savings. Currently, many neurodegenerative diseases are very difficult to access.
For example, if I were ask you for a piece of your skin, or some blood – you’d readily give it to me, which we can convert to stem cells. However, if I asked for a piece of your brain, liver or heart, you would probably take a step back. This is what we can do with stem cells – cells that were formerly your blood cells or skin cells and convert them into stem cells, divert those into cells of choice, and study the disease.
BJ: How far away is this technology from being able to develop new drugs?
SC: It’s right there. People are using it right now for drug discovery as well as potential cell therapy. In the next two to three years, we are seeing lots of work moving forward in this area.
BJ: You mentioned that eyesight is a big area for the Stem Cell Foundation. Has there been any other advances in the area of eyesight?
SC: Yes, we are plotting our way through what hopefully will be a quick process, through at least starting the initial clinical trials with the FDA. So, we are moving forward.
BJ: Another area that we spoke about a couple years ago was the area of “polypharmacy”, and the issues and challenges of issuing multiple prescriptions to one patient. Can you talk about what’s happening with that?
SC: That is ongoing work, and thats where we developed the systems. I think we have both a molecular and a biochemical way to assess what we call the “toxic effects”. We’ve been working on validation of the system – which is making personalized stem cells, which is right in line with the Obama Administration’s goal of having personalized medicine in the 21st Century.
BJ: I assume that will work in a way where you can take stem cells from the patient and create drug combinations on the cell?
SC: Yes, it’s being done already in the field of cancer therapy. So this idea is not foreign by any means and it will now be readily accessible. Cancer patients’ tumor cells are removed, and in about 6-7 weeks, their cells are tested for drug responses. Again, that is quite common.
BJ: Can you talk a little bit about your general observations in the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine, in terms of where you see the investment dollars going today, as opposed to two or five years ago?
SC: Unfortunately, I see investment dollars going down in terms of research, probably due to the current economic struggles that we are having in government. Thankfully, the Foundation is funded through philanthropy, and philanthropy has very much been very able to step up to bridge the gap. However, its still not true growth in research dollars for the academic community.
BJ: In terms of some of the areas that you think are the most exciting for investment – are there any particular areas of regenerative medicine that you think will receive the most attention?
SC: I think the biggest opportunity will be in the area of the regeneration of eyesight. Stem cells are already used in certain types of eye disease treatment, where cells from the eye are used to replace cells in the cornea due to cornea scarring as a result of chemical burns. I think there’s a huge opportunity in diseases of the eye within the next 5-10 years, which I think will be of tremendous importance.
In the area of orthopedics, the use of stem cells in conjunction with medical devices, as well as personalized therapies for degeneration is going to very important for surgery. I think that type of data will be available in the next 2-3 years showing dramatic effects.
BJ: In terms of advice to investors, do you have any type of general or specific advice if you had investment capital to put to work?
SC: As a member of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, I do not give advice on companies, but I give advice on areas that I think are important. I think the regenerative medicine space is going to be important both in the area of chronic health. Things like neurodegeneration and bone degeneration are both ripe for investment. Short-term investments are hit and miss, as you know. One day they work and the next, they don’t.
BJ: In terms of entrepreneurs, is your advice the same?
SC: Absolutely, the ability to make a difference in how a person can walk in tremendously important. If you cannot walk, it affects your knees, joints, etc – that’s going to have a big effect to society, in terms of these therapies that help this, it will be tremendously important.
BJ: Any other advice you would give to investors or entrepreneurs in this space?
SC: I think you need to look at what the government is funding, take a step back, and look how that funding is going to be important in five years, because out of that government funding, in various programs, the future is from that technology.
Most technology in medical research comes from academic areas and consequently, there is IP being generated by these universities. If you keep tabs on what is the “cutting edge” of academic regenerative medicine, you’ll see whats happening in the next 5-10 years, which represents a huge opportunity for you to predict the future.
BJ: Sort of like reverse engineering, right?
SC: It is, it really is – many cases in the area of gene therapy. We worked on that in the early 80’s. We were trying to treat rare, genetic diseases, and that’s what 25 years later, we are seeing, 150 gene therapy companies trying to treat rare, genetic diseases. Anything that has a tremendous impact will have a difference in the future.
BJ: That’s an excellent pearl of wisdom. Thanks for talking to us.
SC: Thanks, Brett.