On considering the alternative

No-one looks forward to their death. In fact, most people will go to great lengths to avoid it. This strong survival instinct has led to the development of the means to defeat diseases caused by poor hygiene, treatments for many of the most deadly infectious diseases and foods that are more healthy. Overall, in the last 100 years the appliance of these various medical “technologies” have meant that the life expectancy at birth has increased from 45 for boys and 49 for girls to 77.4 years for boys and 81.6 for girls.

 

Such are the interesting aspects of these statistics, that those of us who have made it past the traumatic early years, and reached middle age, our life expectancy is closer to 83 and mixed with clean living and good parents, 90 is probably achievable! And when we reach that age, there will be roughly 3 times as many of us as there are now.

 

There is, however, a downside to this increased lifetime. Our bodies did not evolve to last this length of time. As we near the end of our extended lifetimes, various bits of our bodies will fail. Many of us will suffer from osteo-arthritis or similar problems of the musclo-skeletal system that enables us to move so freely and do so much and as a result will be incapacitated and in pain. Or we might suffer from problems with our heart and lungs, which will mean we are continually short of breath and progressively unable to do anything for any length of time. Or we might suffer from degeneration of our nervous system and brain, and be unable to control our own body or even regress into a childlike state and need to be constantly cared for.

 

None of this is new information. We have known about these conditions for some time. It is just that, as we live longer and longer, they will affect the more and more of us that live longer.

 

We have several lines of defence to extend the period of “normal” life. We can use mechanical replacements for worn bits of our bodies. Hip replacements are increasingly common, knee replacements are catching up. Heart valves can be replaced or we can use electronics to monitor and control the heart into normal working patterns. But there is a limit to these treatments.

 

Next come “scaffolds” that can provide a support for the bodies natural healing mechanisms. These are increasingly used for skin and soft tissues conditions but have limitations in repairing the load-bearing and functional bits of the body.

 

What we really need is a means to reboot the body. To use its own healing mechanisms to repair and rejuvenate the ageing bits of our bodies as they reach the end of their useful lifetimes. That is what the implementation of stem cell research can offer us. By understanding better how stem cells work, we can use them to provide treatments for these various degenerative diseases that will affect more and more of us as we live longer. The challenge now is to start applying the knowledge we already have to treat people while developing our understanding further.

 

In the Technology Strategy Board, we apply 4 criteria to select the areas we support and to assess the projects we fund. The first of these is the size of the market with the unmet need. From what I have already said, you can clearly see that there is a market and it will grow inexorably in the future. The second criterion is capability. The UK has a strong academic base in stem cell research and there are more than 30 companies, many of whom have applied to our various competitions over the last few years that, are globally competitive. We definitely have the capability. The third criterion is timing. Here we are looking for the match between the value the market puts on a solution and the cost of providing that solution. We can see from current activities that they are starting to come into alignment. This area is no longer the stuff of science fiction or “gee-whiz” stories. It is becoming real. The fourth criterion is about why the government should provide support. The answer to this comes in a couple of time domains. In the long-term, since we have a national health service, and since healthy people are cheaper to treat than sick people, and because, without this sort of treatment, the burden of care of the expanding elderly population will probably break the current care model, there is a compelling case for investment. In the short-term, these companies need support to be able to move faster towards the market, and many of the commercial funding routes have gone walkabout for the last few years. We have been told that many of them might have stopped if it hadn’t been for the funding we have injected into the area over the last few years.

 

So, for us, stem cells are an example of the coming together of strong scientific understanding, strong technological and commercial capability and a potentially huge market. It will almost certainly take time before they become routine for treatment but, unless you are already past retirement age, and providing you live to a reasonable old age, you will almost certainly benefit from them.

 

This short talk was give at the Science Media Centre as part of a media briefing for International Stem Cell Day on Wednesday 22nd October 2010.

 

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:07

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