World’s top stem cell researchers in Pasadena say therapies could save money

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An international conference on stem cell research concludes Wednesday in Pasadena. It’s gathered hundreds of experts in the field who hope to accelerate the research and results these therapies promise.

While the breakthroughs and potential cures stem cell research offers grab the headlines, the greatest financial effects of the science may lie in cost-saving therapies that apply to aging baby boomers. Heart attacks, diabetes and strokes are among the nation’s most expensive health issues, and that’s likely to continue as the population ages.

"So for example right now if you suffer a stroke you may be looking at long term institutional care costs that are hundreds of thousands of dollars or more over time," said Gil Van Bokkelen, chairman of the nonprofit Alliance for Regenerative Medicine in Washington, D.C. He’s also CEO of the Ohio-based bio tech firm Athersys.

Right now, he says, strokes cost this nation about $73 billion a year. Van Bokkelen says stem cell therapies can help slow the financial blood-letting.

"At the end of the day it’s really about improving clinical outcomes improving quality of life and shifting the cost curve in the right direction – providing more cost effective health care — and that’s how we’ll be able to broaden the scope of heath care accessibility to all the people we’d like to provide it to," Van Bokkelen said.

But stem cell therapies aren’t only for older people. Dr. David Wharburton of USC’s Keck School of Medicine Children’s Hospital says stem cell therapy may work soon for premature infants with chronic lung disease; for adults with congenital kidney disease and for people with deadly pulmonary fibrosis.

"This is a disease that kills adults within four to five years of diagnosis and there is no treatment. But in our model system the stem cells look very promising and they actually get rid of the fibrosis. So very excited about this and it just will take a while to do it safely and get it to patients. But I think we're going to get there. It’s looking good," Wharburton said.

Day three of the World Stem Cell Summit includes panels about healing wounded soldiers, eye diseases and stem cell applications for cancer.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number for the amount strokes cost the U.S. The correct number is $73 billion.