Aug 2016

Dr. Molly Shoichet

Breakthroughs can produce a lot of hope, but also frustration

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You read about a stem cell breakthrough that could lead to a whole new way of treating — maybe even curing — a disease. Then … nothing happens.

The gap in time between a medical science discovery and actual clinical application can seem like a millennium, especially if you are living with the disease in question.

This week in the Toronto Star, Dr. Molly Shoichet articulately — and compassionately — explains why it takes so long to move from the “Eureka!” moment in the research lab to a “We can treat this” scenario at the hospital bed.

She knows first-hand, having worked with a University of Toronto team including Drs. Derek van der Kooy,  Cindi Morshead, Brian Ballios and Michael Cooke that created a hydrogel to help transplanted stem cells thrive in the brain and eye. By injecting photoreceptor cells, the team was able to restore vision by approximately 15% in blind mice.

Their 2015 discovery garnered plenty of media attention, sparking hope that people with macular degeneration — a currently incurable condition — could have a new treatment. More than a year later, no such treatment is available or even on the horizon.

“For many people with macular degeneration, or any degenerative disease for that matter, studies like mine often produce a lot of hope, but also frustration that the ‘product’ is not available to them,” she writes in the Star.

As Dr. Shoichet explains, it can easily take 17 years or more to move a discovery from the lab to the patient.  It takes lots of testing with animals before a new treatment can safely move to the three stages of human clinical trials, with all the attendant regulatory controls and approvals.  It involves plenty of hard, painstaking work. And it costs lots of money.

But Dr. Shoichet remains optimistic. The opportunity to improve the lives of people with deadly diseases is what drives scientists to get up in the morning and get to work.  As she writes, “I am optimistic we will deliver on the promise of regenerative medicine — but it won’t happen right away.”

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