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World academies’ put regenerative medicine opportunities and challenges in the spotlight

A new IAP Statement highlights medical opportunities in addressing the causes of disease and warns against the misuse of regenerative medicine technologies – also when it comes to the proposed use of stem cells to tackle COVID-19

Regenerative medicine, including the use of tissue engineering and cell and gene therapies, has great potential for tissue regeneration and repair. The pace of advance in this interdisciplinary science is exciting and the medical opportunities in addressing the causes of disease rather than the symptoms may be transformative. However, there are growing concerns about the misuse of regenerative medicine technologies.

This is why the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), a global network whose more than 140 member academies constitute more than 30,000 leading scientists, engineers and health professionals in over 100 countries, issued the IAP Statement on Regenerative Medicine.

The main priorities emphasised in the document are

  • to use advances in research and development as rapidly as possible, safely and equitably, to provide new routes to patient benefit, and
  • to support medical claims by robust and replicable evidence so that patients and the public are not misled.

What is Regenerative Medicine?

Regenerative medicine comprises various novel interdisciplinary approaches to healthcare, aimed at tissue regeneration, repair, restoration and reorganization.

The IAP Statement, based on work by academy-nominated experts from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe, is inclusive in integrating perspectives including from Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) whose voices are sometimes relatively muted. Recommendations for supporting research and innovation, while protecting patients, cover issues for ethical assessment, pre-clinical and clinical research phases, regulatory authorisation and access to new medicines, and for engaging with patients, policy makers and the public.

Volker ter Meulen, IAP Special Advisor and chair of the Working Group that developed the statement, stresses that “accelerated access to novel medicines is vital for patient benefit, but researchers must not cut corners.”

“A coordinated strategy to address the current challenges in the field must encompass better science, better funding, better governance and better public and patient engagement,” he adds.

The focus of this IAP Statement is on unmet medical needs: stem cells offer a case study with many of the conclusions relevant more broadly for regenerative medicine. Although stem cell therapy is well-established in only a limited number of clinical indications such as bone marrow or epidermis transplantation, there is active research and development in many more, including neurological, hepatic, cardiovascular, retinal and musculoskeletal disorders.

However, enthusiasm about the clinical potential has led to a disconnect between expectations and the realities of translating advances in technology into clinical practice. In many countries, there are two main problems. First, unscrupulous private clinics offer unregulated therapies promising much, but using poorly characterised products with little scientific basis or evidence for efficacy, and with unresolved safety concerns. Second, premature regulatory authority approval and commercialisation based on some, but insufficient, scientific rationale and clinical evidence.

Regenerative medicine/stem cells and COVID-19

Opportunities and challenges for the use of stem cells are exemplified by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Any such use of stem cells to tackle COVID-19 must be based on rigorous evidence of safety and efficacy, following strict research protocols that consider the ethical issues and characterise the stem cells used, focusing on a defined stage of the disease and in the hands of a team with capacity and validity to undertake the intervention,” says IAP Co-President Depei Liu.

Unfortunately, some of the same clinics that have been offering unproven regenerative medicine therapies for diverse conditions are now offering unproven treatments for the treatment of complications of COVID-19. While some research is in progress, e.g. on mesenchymal stromal cells, the preliminary studies are insufficient to support commercialisation.

There is a further concern regarding these unproven treatments for COVID-19: fraudulent claims of efficacy may encourage purchasers to abstain from taking other steps, e.g. social distancing, to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, or to get one of the different types of COVID-19 vaccines available.

“Although there may be scientific rationale for exploring and pursuing novel research directions in responding to COVID-19, premature use of unproven approaches risks patient safety and undermines public confidence,” warns IAP Co-President Sir Richard Catlow.

Read the full statement, here.

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