Dr. William Henrich, president of UTHSCSA, shares his story. Photo by Cherise Allegrini.
Dr. William Henrich, president of UTHSCSA, shares his story during the 2014 World Stem Cell Summit in San Antonio. Photo by Cherise Allegrini.

Myelodysplasia: When your bone marrow doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do and doesn’t produce blood cells properly.

This is how Dr. William Henrich, president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), introduced his personal story to the audience at the Public Education Day of the World Stem Cell Summit (WSCS). A couple of years ago, this was his diagnosis. The best treatment option was stem cell transplantation.

Suddenly, stem cell research became real. And personal.

Because Henrich was speaking today, we know that his stem cell transplant was successful. But it wouldn’t have been possible without research, clinical trials, and the type of collaboration the World Stem Cell Summit has brought to San Antonio this week.

The 10th anniversary summit, organized by the Genetics Policy Institute (GPI), has descended on San Antonio. 1,000 participants from more than 40 countries around the globe are in the Alamo City to talk about regenerative medicine. When doing pure research, scientists often find themselves far removed from the practical applications of their work.

The coordinators of the WSCS know this, so they brought together a diverse array of thought leaders: scientists, regulators, legal experts, patient advocates, and investors – all to San Antonio. The excitement was palpable.

Bernard Siegel, JD, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, welcomes the speakers to the 2014 World Stem Cell Summit.
Bernard Siegel, J.D., founder and executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, welcomes the speakers to the 2014 World Stem Cell Summit.

Bringing together world leaders in regenerative medicine to San Antonio was no small task, but it should have been an obvious one. We all know our city is renowned for biomedical research, but how many of us knew it was also a world leader in regenerative medicine? The U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) is located at the Brooke Army Medical Center, where its Burn Center is one of a kind. The military has come a long way in saving lives, but debilitating injuries have increased.

Of the 50,000 soldiers wounded in the Gulf War, 40% have severe extremity or craniofacial injuries, said USAISR Deputy Commander Michael Davis. His aim is to help them return to as normal as possible. That all those wounded warriors come to San Antonio for treatment means we have a unique opportunity to advance the science to improve their lives.

While most funding for wounded warrior care comes from the Department of Defense, the military works in close collaboration with academic institutions. In San Antonio, BioMed SA helps facilitate that collaboration with local leaders in the biotech industry.

District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, President of BioMed SA Ann Stevens,and Lt. Col. Mike Davis, deputy commander of USAISR, share a moment at the Summit. Photo by Cherise Allegrini.
Ron NiDistrict 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg, BioMed SA President Ann Stevens, and Lt. Col. Mike Davis, deputy commander of USAISR, share a moment at the Summit. Photo by Cherise Allegrini.

We do some things really well here– including stem cell research – but it’s been our best-kept secret until now. Ann Stevens, president of BioMed SA, said that while wound care and regenerative medicine were among the five top areas of biomedical expertise in San Antonio, most people didn’t know about it, and the scientific community around this topic was the least cohesive.

It was time to change that. Dr. Steven Davis of the StemBioSys committee of scientific leaders from BiomedSA, USAISR, UTHSCSA, Biobridge Global, the City of San Antonio’s Economic Development Corporation, and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, as well as many other local leaders, came together to convince GPI to consider San Antonio for its 2014 Summit.

San Antonio, perhaps more than most other cities in the country, knows how to come together. Collaboration rather than competition is the driving force, and it was this that brought GPI’s 2014 Summit to the Alamo City. The industry leaders in stem cell research in San Antonio are among the best with whom he has associated, said founder and executive director Bernie Siegel. The level of enthusiasm and sophistication in San Antonio is substantial. It didn’t take long for the organizing committee to gather support from political and community leaders, from Governor Rick Perry to then-Mayor Julián Castro, from local medical industry leaders and the scientific community.

The City of San Antonio did what it does best, roll out the welcome mat. City Manager Sheryl Sculley told attendees gathered at the opening reception that San Antonio is committed to engaging, encouraging, and supporting this work at all levels – from basic science research to the biotech industry.

COSA City Manager Sheryl Sculley explains why San Antonio is a leader in biotech.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley discusses San Antonio’s San Antonio’s growing biotech industry. Photo by Cherise Rohr-Allegrini.

In bringing this conference to San Antonio, GPI has also brought companies from around the world to our city. The potential for impact on our community is significant. To showcase our city’s resources, the Southwest National Primate Research Center at Texas Biomedical Research Institute and Southwest Research Institute’s Biomedical Engineering and Biobridge Global conducted “Behind the Scenes” tours for conference attendees.

Siegel said that “Scientists do the research, but industry is required to take the science to practice.”

San Antonio has a relatively small amount of venture capital focused on the local biotech industry. Because the collaboration between academic science and industry is so critical, GPI organized a conference within a conference – the RegMedCapital Conference, giving investors the opportunity to meet directly with scientific experts conducting the research.This unique pairing of conferences also enabled local scientists to interact with international and domestic investors. Stevens said this would open doors for greater access to capital for our local biomedical companies.

Dr. Steven Davis, co-founder of StemBioSys, Don Frost, vice chairman of San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, and Bob Hutchens, CEO of StemBioSys, visit during the Summit. Photo by Cherise Allegrini.
StemBioSys co-founder Dr. Steven Davis, San Antonio Economic Development Foundation Vice Chair Don Frost, and StemBioSys CEO Bob Hutchens pose for a photo during the 2014 World Stem Cell Summit. Photo by Cherise Rohr-Allegrini.

It wasn’t that long ago that the public was wary of stem cell research. Organizations such as Texans for Stem Cell Research have worked hard to educate the public and our legislators about the reality of this work. While there are still small pockets of opposition, there is, for the most part, great support for stem cell research and the field of regenerative medicine.  With so many wounded soldiers in San Antonio, many of us know someone, or have seen someone, who has benefited from the research directly.

The UTHSCSA seized the opportunity to further that knowledge by hosting a Public Education Day pre-conference event. This day of lectures and panel discussions by local researchers showcased their work, but most importantly, provided an excellent opportunity for the general public to learn about stem cell research.

Dr. Elaine Fuchs of Rockefeller University, a pioneer in the field of skin stem cells, opened the day discussing the basics of stem cell biology and the promise for regenerative medicine. Throughout the afternoon, panelists from UTHSCSA, Texas Biomed Research Institute, UTSA, USAISR, Baylor College of Medicine, and Biobridge Global discussed ongoing research and health care applications of stem cells to a mixed audience of scientists, students, and community members. Perhaps the most important questions came from the young middle and high school students in the audience, full of excitement and promise for their own future careers in this field and the chance to save lives.

*Featured/top image: Dr. William Henrich,  president of UTHSCSA, shares his story. Photo by Cherise Rohr-Allegrini.

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Cherise Rohr-Allegrini is an infectious disease epidemiologist and consultant. She is currently the San Antonio Program Director for The Immunization Partnership. Dr. Rohr-Allegrini was the Pandemic Flu...