Biden makes ambitious move to push stem cell therapies

By Hannah McManus, Special to CNN

(CNN) — Former Vice President Joe Biden is betting millions of dollars on one of the best-known medical breakthroughs of all time: stem cell therapies.

Biden, 72, said in a CNN interview that he will bet as much as $10 million on clinical trials that successfully treat children suffering from chronic, incurable and serious conditions. In the process, he will also challenge the pharmaceutical company that spearheaded those clinical trials to contribute to research that prevents problems like leukemia and other cancers.

The hope is that the clinical trials will eventually be approved for wider use and that eventually, with his donation, the pharmaceutical company would license the treatment and use it to create an affordable, prescription-grade version of the therapy.

Biden will pay the $10 million to four patient care organizations that worked with researchers in hopes of advancing those clinical trials.

“I look at it and think, you know, I know how difficult this is. They’ve waited decades to get this medicine,” Biden said. “It’s almost incomprehensible and I want to break that logjam. It’s a basic sense of fairness. And I hope I have raised enough money for other hospitals or research centers or medical foundations to break the logjam as well.”

For decades, the aggressive treatment of adult patients with adult stem cell transplants has generated ethical concerns in both medical circles and in Congress. In particular, the use of patients under the age of 18 has raised alarms over the risks associated with the therapy, which involves extensive blood cell purification and frequent infusion of their own bone marrow with adult stem cells.

Last year, Florida pediatrician Dr. Ian Humphreys, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Stem Cell Program, said adult stem cell treatments for children under the age of 10 in the United States are not based on sound scientific research. Instead, he said, they “are the bastard child of adult stem cell therapies used to treat children.”

Biden declined to say when the clinical trials will end. His spokesman, Alex Steel, said the vice president plans to keep talking about his trip to Vietnam and meetings with patients “as long as it takes.” The Biden Foundation has declined to comment on reports that Biden is turning to potential staff for staff.

But the vice president is laying the groundwork for his challenge with a crowdfunding effort, a website and interviews in which he speaks candidly about his faith, his White House and his own experience in the public eye. He also touched on his past work with pharmaceutical companies and how they are promoting the safety of prescription drugs while refusing to do the same when it comes to clinical trials.

Biden has also spoken publicly about the experience of his son Beau, who died of brain cancer last year at age 46. Biden spoke of the possibility of introducing a bill in the House to allow coverage of treatments and procedures that could possibly work for children, but Steel said Biden could not discuss the idea further, adding that he “will continue to raise this topic.”

The effort is Biden’s latest forays into health care reform since he left the Senate last year. Two months after leaving office, Biden made a trip to Italy and Dubai in hopes of boosting the global rollout of cell transplant therapy, which was first approved in 2006. He partnered with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, at the time a member of Knesset, on the initiative.

In late January, Biden wrote a New York Times opinion piece calling for transparency in the financial arrangements between drug companies and hospitals. He has called for “evidence-based, professional standards” to guide the process of deciding when therapies and procedures are ethical for children and adults, and also for greater accountability.

Leave a Comment