Stem cell research is moving ever more deliberately toward the clinic with increasing momentum and is recognized as one of the most promising approaches for developing new kinds of medicines. The rapid advances in this field are having profound effects on how researchers conceive and pursue their work in traditional academic or research institutions and in commercial enterprises.
These developments require us to rethink the path that connects stem cell biology and regenerative medicine and recognize that both academia and industry play essential roles. For regenerative medicine to move forward efficiently and effectively, it is important that we recognize and capture the energy, momentum, and intellectual capital needed to advance science for the sustainable benefit to society.
As careers evolve in this expanding field, a new workforce is developing to meet the needs of scientists and industry in bringing products to market. It’s my hope that these changes will result in more fluid movement between academia and industry, as both pursue collaborations to advance biomedicine.
Reframing the Traditional Research Path
Traditionally, young people interested in science and research careers have pursued undergraduate study and then progressed to graduate work toward a PhD and/or medical degree, followed by postdoctoral training and onto a faculty position. This conventional path has been quite successful and led to rewarding research careers both in academia and biomedicine—but it shouldn’t be the only career path.
New research approaches and the impressive growth of the biotech industry have highlighted some advantages of a non-academic career track. The biotech/pharma setting provides avenues for smart, ambitious, and resourceful scientists wherein one can combine an interest in science with new tools and technologies that can quickly yield tangible results. In many cases, doing science in an industrial setting can accelerate the pace of the next scientific breakthrough and produce products that can benefit society now and in the future. The point is not that one path (academic or industrial) is better than the other, but rather, there are now vastly increased opportunities for scientific progress in both arenas.
Exciting opportunities in regenerative medicine are available to scientists with a wide variety of backgrounds, including biotechnology, chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, and others, all key to translational science. Students may have advanced degrees in biology, physics, or chemistry, and add courses in innovation, entrepreneurship, or business to make them well suited for positions in industry and the pursuit of new biomedical products.
Forging Alliances: Academia and Industry
Changes in the biomedical workforce will require a cultural shift. No longer will the best and most innovative young talent be primarily in academia (if it ever was) —these students will also be moving directly into industry. Trainees and PIs will be choosing industry over academia, and the ISSCR supports that effort, understanding that we all are working with the common goal of doing good in the world. Making the choice to go into industry directly does not suggest academic failure, rather it leads to a different set of challenges and opportunities, with new environments for success. Increasingly, students are taking internships in business or regulatory settings, moving into industry after graduate school, and making significant contributions that are on par with scientists starting their own labs. Postdocs in industry are increasingly popular, and many of the newest innovations are coming from biotech and pharma.
Embracing this New Paradigm
The support of PIs, senior researchers, and the field is key to embracing this new paradigm. The integration of science and industry brings continued collaboration and information sharing, with valuable lessons for the future. Traditional bench scientists developing their own companies and working with others in industry are pioneering pathways and business models that can serve as effective guides. Together these scientists can mentor others entering the field and open the door for their success.
The ISSCR captures this valuable expertise and shares it at the annual meeting and at the Workshop on Clinical Translation the day before the meeting begins. Scientists provide advice on issues such as how to navigate the pre-clinical and clinical trials processes, regulatory and oversight requirements, the engineering and scaling concerns that come into play, and tips on how to license, patent, and commercialize a product or device. Translational issues are regularly covered at our meetings, including at the 2019 meeting in Los Angeles.
Finally, it is important to recognize this evolution as a very positive development. Stem cell science is a young field, and these are necessary tensions as it evolves to deliver biomedicine that can transform human health and alleviate suffering for millions of people.