The Methuselah Foundation is publishing a series of interviews in recent weeks related to their activities in support of the research community. The overall purpose of the Foundation is to accelerate progress towards the defeat of aging, but since spinning off the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) research initiatives into the SENS Research Foundation, the Methuselah Foundation staff have focused most of their efforts on tissue engineering, with a side-helping of numerous other projects related to aging research and biotechnology. The Foundation was one of the early investors in the bioprinting venture Organovo, for example, and has some influence behind the scenes in the regenerative medicine research community thanks to the New Organ initiative.
Here is an interview with Robert Langer, one of the luminaries of the field of tissue engineering. Some things are always true in the sciences, one being that there is never enough funding for any given research to progress at the best possible pace. There is always work for advocates and fundraisers, and the delivery of more funding can make a real difference. This is just as true in comparatively wealthy fields such as tissue engineering as it is for their poorer cousins such as biogerontology. Researchers who work on aging and longevity would be ecstatic with the level of attention and funding enjoyed by the stem cell research community, and the chance to experience resource issues at that higher level, but in the end every lab does less than its researchers would like to achieve. Most people don't value medical research in the slightest, and that fact is reflected by the vanishingly narrow slice of total economic activity that is devoted to building better treatments and healthier lives.
MF: In your mind, what is the most promising work going on these days in tissue engineering?
Langer: I think there's a lot of it - everything from IPS cells to stem cells to new materials. There's a lot of very good basic and applied work going on. People are trying to understand and design bioreactors, factors that affect cell growth, new kinds of biomaterials, decellularized constructs. There are all kinds of animal and clinical trials going on. And then in each particular area, I think there's been exciting work - skin, lung, eyes, kidneys, pancreas, vocal cords, spinal cords, etc. There's just a tremendous amount of good work being done.
MF: You've founded and been involved with a lot of biotech companies. What have been the biggest challenges to success, especially in the U.S.?
Langer: The key is raising money, because it's just so incredibly expensive. I think they estimate now that it costs well over a billion dollars to create a new drug. So raising money is crucial. You also have to have mitigation strategies for things that don't work out. You don't get that many shots on goal. Doing good science and having good intellectual property are the foundation, but anything in the medical area is a very, very expensive proposition. It's not like the internet.
MF: Are you happy with the amount of funding that tissue engineering is receiving?
Langer: No, I think it needs a lot more. To me that's a huge issue.
MF: How do we change that situation?
Langer: Well, it's very hard. For example, I think what you're doing with New Organ is great, but you're doing it on the back end, and the problem is that we need more funding on the front end. Government grants are really the key, and it's very hard to get them.
MF: The philanthropic sector seems to be underfunding these areas as well, and has been for some time.
Langer: I think that's probably fair. I would agree with that.
MF: Why do you think that is? For example, when I look at the Giving Pledge signers list - 100 plus billionaires committing 50% or more of their net worth toward charity - it's hard to find many of them who are allocating funds toward tissue engineering or regenerative medicine.
Langer: I think people do things on a fairly disease-specific basis. Cancer and heart disease are still the number one killers, and people usually support things they've seen close relatives die from.
It is worth noting that Langer is very much a part of the governmental medical research edifice, and thus this is where his biases lie when thinking about large-scale strategic funding of his field. Even in the US public funds probably make up only a third or so of all research funding in the life sciences, however. Government funds are much more easily measured and thus much more frequently discussed by the media than is the case for private for-profit and philanthropic funding efforts, but they are not the whole story.
From what I've seen over the years if you want to see radical change in research, it will always come from philanthropy. Even those programs viewed as being largely governmental receive a great deal of support from philanthropists, who donate to fill the gaps where more adventurous work must be undertaken. The controlling institutions of public funding for medical research are very, very risk averse and resources are usually only available for the most incremental and certain late stages of the research process. All of the early, more speculative work is funded by other sources.