Stem cells are part of the solution to transforming health care, according to the Federal Government’s Advisory Panel on Healthcare Innovation.
The Panel recently released its report, Unleashing Innovation: Excellent Healthcare for Canada. As part of its findings, the panelists noted “the inter-related areas of stem cell science, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine have opened up new therapeutic vistas” that are accelerating the transformation to “precision medicine.”
And what exactly is precision medicine? It is the opposite of the “one-size-fits-all” (or, better yet, “the one-drug-heals-all”) approach to health care. Sometimes called personalized medicine, it means diagnosing, treating and preventing illness with strategies tailored to an individual patient or subset of patients. It is being driven forward by technological advances that have made it possible to predict that a treatment that works for one patient may not work — and may be harmful — for another. By virtue of its very personal nature, stem cells and regenerative therapies are a type of precision medicine.
The benefits to precision medicine extend beyond avoiding adverse reactions. When drugs or treatments that are given to a patient are a bad fit, it’s a waste of the patient’s precious time (especially if the disease is life-threatening) and a misuse of the health care system’s already-limited resources
You’ll be hearing a lot more about precision medicine. As the Advisory Panel notes, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative in his 2015 State of the Union address, committing $215 million in funding. In a similar vein, Genomics England, a subsidiary of England’s National Health Service, announced it will sequence the genomes of 100,000 patients with rare diseases or cancer and their families. This will be linked to clinical data and made available at the bedside. In Australia, one of the National Health and Medical Health Research Council’s largest single grant competitions is for research funding to prepare for the genomics revolution in health care.
While much of the precision medicine attention is focused on genomics, stem cells and regenerative medicine work hand in hand with that field. More and more stem cell research is moving toward “autologous” stem cell solutions — using a person’s own stem cells to treat diseases such a blood-based cancers, autoimmune diseases, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration and to improve wound-healing. Because these stem cells are self-supplied (though they go through manipulation to increase their volume and make them more robust), there is no need for immunosuppression drugs to fight off rejection. In short, they are a precise fit.
Much of what the Advisory Panel, led by the University of Toronto’s former president David Naylor, is suggesting echoes sentiments put forward in the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, a private-sector-led plan to deliver up to 10 new curative therapies within 10 years by aligning key players in the field – including researchers, clinicians, health charities, industry leaders and philanthropists. The Strategy notes that other countries are investing heavily in their own stem sectors and that if Canada does not act now, we will be left behind.
Speaking about precision medicine, to which stem cell science is intrinsic, the Advisory Panel warns that “without a cogent strategy, without the right infrastructure … without mechanisms to translate successful discoveries into both improved clinical care and exciting new businesses, Canada runs a risk of wasting opportunity and money – and falling even further behind our peers.”