Published 23 January 2009
Twelve years ago, Irving Weissman discovered a treatment that might have saved the lives of thousands of women with advanced breast cancer, but pharmaceutical companies weren’t interested in developing the therapy. Though that interest is finally being reignited, Weissman doesn’t pull any punches. “I hate to say I told you so,” he said.
Weissman, a professor of pathology and developmental biology at Stanford University, spoke Wednesday and Thursday at Columbia University.
Weissman laid out the conceptual foundation of his work—that stem cells are rare, self-renewing, and can regenerate body tissues. Weissman repeatedly expressed frustration that while many of his discoveries seemed to hold remarkable potential for life-saving treatments, commercial or regulatory hurdles have prevented his scientific research from benefiting human beings.
One example is
Weissman’s mid-’90s research on type I diabetes, in which he demonstrated the ability to fully cure type I diabetes in mice using stem cells.
But even though the experiments avoided political controversy by using so-called adult stem cells, which do not come from embryos, Weissman ran into a road block when pharmaceutical companies refused to sponsor clinical trials. The therapy went nowhere. Weissman implied that the pharmaceutical companies had put profit over principle, preferring to keep diabetes sufferers dependent on costly insulin than to cure them once and for all.
“He [Weissman] has a long history of being at the forefront of his field,” Arthur Palmer, professor of structural biology at Columbia said, remarking that Weissman has never been afraid to challenge scientific orthodoxy.