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How Stem Cell Research Might Affect Everyone

There has been much speculation about stem cell research’s potentially miraculous treatments for diabetes, AIDS and other diseases. And those possibilities are real and within reach, according to Bruce Conklin of the UCSF Gladstone research institutes. But the real reach of stem cell research might seem a little more commonplace and yet could have more benefit to more people.

“Just making better medicines all around, that’s going to be a huge benefit to the public,” Conklin said. “In my view of the biomedical revolution, that’s going to be the biggest impact overall.”

The change, he said, will be that physicians no longer would have to guess which medicines might have statistically higher or lower incidence of potentially deadly side effects.

“You’re going to have medicines tailored to specific genetic backgrounds,” said Conklin, who conducts stem cell research at Gladstone, UCSF’s medical research arm with programs devoted to cardiovascular disease, neurological disease and virolgy and immunology.

For instance, he said, there are a dozen different drugs that might treat cardiac arrhythmia. “And there’s a certain small percentage of people who could be seriously hurt or even killed by taking those drugs,” he said. “And if you’re one of those people, well, that’s a bad day.”

So, he said, if a physician wants to prescribe erythromycin to a patient, for example, in the future researchers could use stem cells to help define the responses to the common genetic variants, and then physicians could check a patient’s genetic information by taking a quick skin test, and use that to determine whether or not a drug is safe.

“We should be able to do a skin biopsy, test your cells, and see whether your particular genetic makeup would have a bad response to erythromycin,” Conklin said. “That’s better medicine.”

People’s genetic information would eventually become part of their individual medical record, he said.

And that means that most prescribed medicines would be generic, he said, because it would be crystal clear whether or not patients could take those generics, and which one would work best for them.

Which, in turn, means that the cost of medicine would drop.

“That’s where it’s going to be dramatically different,” Conklin said. “Every time a doctor prescribes a drug, it’s an experiment. Stem cell biology has enabled us to create a platform, so it’ll be based more on what works for patients, not on what the free samples are this month.”

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