The three-year-old California Institute for Regenerative Medicine may be the world's richest stem-cell-research effort, with $3 billion in bond funding. But it has also been plagued by internal bickering, leadership changes, and legal battles. Australian scientist Alan Trounson aims to refocus the agency on its mission statement: "Turning stem cells into cures."
You spent decades building a great career in Australia. Why leave?
It was bittersweet. I had a stem-cell center of 120 people at Monash University, and we were well recognized. So my initial response was, "No, of course I don't want to leave." But this is probably the best stem-cell job in the world.
The institute's motto is bold. How long before we will start seeing cures?
I see the research as a series of small steps rather than radical cures happening straight away. A cure means that you've completely routed a disease. But I think it's important to make advances. With people who've got major spinal injuries, for example, if they can get back control of their bladders and bowels, that can give them some dignity.
What are some of the most impressive research that the institute is supporting?
For lung diseases like emphysema, we're finding that if you put stem cells into the bloodstream, the cells will be drawn to inflammation in the lung to repair damaged tissue. You can also do repairs on seriously injured hearts. Researchers are showing that colonies of cardiac muscle cells grown from stem cells will integrate quite normally into the hearts of rats and mice.
The institute has unusual rules for grantees: They must make discoveries available publicly and pay royalties to the state. Why?
The citizens of California are funding this research, so it's important for them to be able to access developments at a reasonable rate. It's about enabling research, but it's also about enabling patients to access the benefits.
You've founded six companies. What did you learn from that?
The companies that worked best were the ones that were able to deliver specific services. Whenever they've been speculative, they've been disappointing.
How do you regard opposition to embryonic stem-cell research on moral grounds?
I respect the views of people who believe that a person is formed at fertilization. But I don't think all of us share those views—and we live in democracies where the majority view is usually accepted, at least in a political sense. I'm thankful for that.
Researchers recently developed stem cells from mature skin cells, which some say could eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells. What's your take?
As a result of this discovery, you could take skin cells from a patient, make them into cardiac muscle cells, and test a heart drug on them. Many deaths occur because of unpredicted responses to drugs. If the cells behave in an unpredictable way, you'd know not to give the patient that drug. That's tremendous—it could lead to more personalized medicine. But I don't see it as having clinical relevance in therapeutics yet, because multiple copies of genes in these cells have viral components, and some of those genes encode for cancers. When researchers did this work in the mouse, they produced a lot of mice with tumors.
You've said previously that you don't view the developing embryo as a person.
As a scientist, I see a group of cells—you know, 100, 200 cells—as without form whatsoever. But when I had to dissect a human embryo at 9, 10 weeks of age, I was very uncomfortable. In fact, I couldn't do it. So I see it as a kind of ethical continuum. I spent time with members of a Vatican university when I was in Naples, and they persuaded me that if I felt what I was doing was designed to address some problem of human misery, then it was acceptable.
"When I had to dissect a human embryo at 9, 10 weeks of age, I was very uncomfortable."
Researchers in Oregon recently created large numbers of cloned embryos from the cells of a rhesus macaque, and others have reportedly produced cloned human embryos.
I'm not interested in cloning monkeys, and I really don't think we want to clone human beings. There are problems in the cloning procedure that lead to quite traumatic abnormalities. I can't see the point of doing this in the higher organisms like primates.
What do you hope to contribute to the field for posterity?
In a big-picture sense, I want to be up on the mountain looking down on the Serengeti, watching all the animals move through. I want to be remembered for having guided some basic discoveries from the lab to the clinic. If I can help get that process going, I think that's sufficient.
And how did your family feel about moving?
My wife, Karin, is Swedish, and she said, "Alan, it has taken me 20 years to become an Australian, and you want me to become an American now? I don't think so." But she came around. The boys think it's pretty cool—the 6-year-old thinks there's Halloween every night in America.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.