Huffpost Science

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Don C. Reed Headshot

On Changing (Stem Cell) Presidents: A Modest Proposal

Posted: Updated:

Alan Trounson is retiring from the presidency of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM, better known as the California stem cell program), and it is happening way too soon.

His reason for leaving early is simple: He misses his family. Alan is from Australia, and as he put it, "Seeing your 12-year-old son once a year -- that's just not enough, is it?"


On the other hand, the man is incredibly useful for the future of regenerative medicine, and some of us in the patient advocate community hate to see him go. A brilliant scientist (he helped develop the in vitro fertilization program, which has helped more than 5 million childless couples achieve parenthood), Trounson is also someone who knows how to get things done organizationally.

Might there be a way to keep him on part-time?

Major decisions like these are up to the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, the stem cell program's board of directors.

Also, as Alan said when I asked him about staying on part-time, "The new president may not want the old guy hanging around."

Usually when a president leaves, that's it, over and done.

But consider what we would be losing, if standard practice is applied. Here are 10 reasons to consider a modest proposal for change.

First, it will be extraordinarily difficult to find a replacement of Trounson's caliber quickly. There are great scientists all across America, no question. Champions like George Daley, Jean Loring, Deepak Srivastava, John Reed (no relation), Larry Goldstein, Kevin Eggan, Jose Cibelli and probably a dozen more could do the job, no question.

However, the problem with great people is that they are always overbooked. Scientists like the above are surfing desperately to keep ahead of the wave of discovery.

But if we could keep Trounson aboard on a part-time basis, the time crunch would ease.

Second: Even if we had a new president waiting in the wings, he or she would surely be glad of someone who knows the program inside and out.

Third, Alan has made a priority of connecting with California biomedicine, and those personal connections are hard to replace.

Fourth, the international network of collaborating funding partners forged in his tenure are incredibly valuable, enabling the best scientists in the world to work together -- and Alan knows essentially everyone who is anyone in the field.

Fifth, he loves creativity. One project involved putting high school students in touch with colleges, and the idea was that the student would bring expertise in another area and then learn stem cell science in a combination: movies, engineering, art imaging, others.

Sixth, as board member Jeff Sheehy puts it, Alan "achieved one of the seminal visions embedded in Proposition 71, the ... integration of patients, industry and researchers into a ... synergistic union."

Seventh, he knows how to stretch a dollar. Rather than simply doling out funds to qualified researchers and hoping for results, the Trounson method involves predetermined milestones. If unmet, the grant is terminated. Add to that some careful project management and advice by CIRM staff, and the drive to succeed is increased.

Eighth, he understands the crucial need to work closely with both private enterprise and the agencies that regulate them. For his vice president, he hired Dr. Ellen Feigal, who had worked with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), actually teaching a college course on the FDA, in addition to clinical trials experience with Amgen, the pioneering biomedical company.

Ninth, he can understand and predict the need for major changes. For instance there is a potential weakness in induced pluripotent stem cells (also known as iPS cells, made famous by Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, who now works in California), which is the length of time it takes to make a person's stem cell line with that reprogramming method -- six to nine months. But if a bank of stem cell lines could be developed that would cover the major histocompatibility groups so as to be close to people's individual characteristics, these could be used with a minimum of immune suppression. Most of the world (perhaps 90 percent) might be covered by less than 400 lines -- and they could be ready and waiting for use in regenerative medicine -- which is what Trounson and his national and international colleagues are attempting to do.

Tenth, one of the most important advances offered on his watch is the alpha stem cell clinic network structure that will enable cell therapies to be delivered in registered clinical trials and patient treatments, as well as helping patients be protected against unsafe medical tourism treatments. Such ideas deserve protection and advancement.

We should not lose completely this remarkable resource for regenerative medicine.

Do others share my good opinion? Says Robert Klein, Chair Emeritus of the stem cell agency:

Alan Trounson made a phenomenal contribution to the global advance of stem cell therapies through his six year service as President of California's stem cell research [program] ... Through his leadership ... California stem cell researchers and biotech startups have ... reached the threshold of human trials with their first wave of human therapies for heart disease, leukemia, type 1 diabetes, cancer, macular degeneration (blindness) and HIV/AIDS ... [planting] the seeds of a historic revolution in medicine and patient care.

And according to Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., chair of the board:

Alan ... has led us through some challenging times, been the driving force behind some truly innovative ideas -- [and] has helped establish us as a world leader in the field of stem cell research.