Carmel Valley stem cell expert says research field is at the ‘beginning of a revolution in science and medicine’
By Joe Tash
When Larry Goldstein imagines the potential of modern stem cell science, he is reminded of a scene from the 1967 Academy Award-winning film “The Graduate,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.
Hoffman’s character, a recent college graduate named Benjamin Braddock, is chatting with an older man at a cocktail party. “I just want to say one word to you…just one word… plastics,” the man tells Benjamin.
Goldstein, 57, a Carmel Valley resident and head of one of the nation’s premier stem cell research labs, sees a vast upside to his chosen field of research in terms of scientific advancement, treatment of devastating diseases, and economic prosperity, similar to the character’s prediction for plastics.
“We’re at the beginning of a revolution in science and medicine,” said Goldstein. “What’s the hot business going forward? Man, it’s biological plastics. They can replenish themselves, you can make them do things, you can build stuff. It’s incredible.”
“It’s not unrealistic to think that over the course of the next several decades, that artificial organs will be built of materials made from stem cells, either fully or in part,” he said.
Goldstein wears two official hats – director of the UC San Diego stem cell program, and scientific director of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. As Goldstein explained it, his role with UCSD is to facilitate and remove barriers for investigators working on a number of different stem cell-related projects, while his work with the Sanford Consortium involves coordination with scientists from a number of different research institutions on Torrey Pines Mesa.
He also co-founded a biotech company, Cytokinetics, which is developing drugs based on stem cell science.
In an interview in his Sanford Consortium office, a glass-walled rectangle overlooking the Torrey Pines Gliderport, Goldstein talked about his work, advancements in stem cell research, and his views on higher education.
One of his jobs, as he sees it, is to communicate clearly and accessibly about the work of stem cell scientists. With that in mind, he wrote “Stem Cells for Dummies,” a primer on the field, with journalist Meg Schneider, published in 2010.
While he regrets the title – “I’d prefer ‘Stem Cells for Smart People Who Want to Know More’” — he is proud of the book, which provides thorough explanations of the different types of stem cells, how they work, how they can affect the future and other topics.
The primary types of stem cells, said Goldstein, are embryonic, adult, and re-programmed. Each type of stem cell has its place in the research going on in Goldstein’s lab, which is conducting a range of experiments, such as seeking to understand what goes wrong in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, and developing a means of stem cell transplantation to treat ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he said. Researchers are also studying a rare childhood disease called Niemann Pick Type C, a fatal neurological condition that affects children.
Embryonic stem cells are found in an early stage of the human embryo called the blastocyst, and have the ability to form any cell in the adult human body, from brain to liver to skin to bone, according to Goldstein. The can also grow indefinitely in the lab, providing material for researchers, and cells for potential treatments. The use of embryonic stem cells in research is controversial, because the blastocyst – a ball of 100-200 cells – is destroyed.
About a million blastocysts – created during fertility treatments – are stored in freezers around the world, more than enough for researchers to work with, Goldstein said.
Adult stem cells can replicate themselves, and also generate specific types of tissue, such as skin, blood and various organs. Finally, scientists have discovered ways to “reprogram” adult stem cells so they regain their “pluripotency,” or ability to generate different types of stem cells.
Goldstein likened the different types of stem cells to tools in a scientist’s tool box, and said researchers must select the right tool for the job they are doing.
Along with his research hat, Goldstein mentors students as they assist in research projects in his lab. An alumnus of UCSD, Goldstein spoke of being hugely influenced when one of his professors allowed him to work in the lab as an undergrad.
“I discovered something I was excited about, that I was passionate about, that I was good at and could devote my life to,” he said. His work with students, then, is an effort to “pay it forward,” by helping inspire the next generation of scientists.
One-on-one contact between students and professors is essential to the learning process, he said, adding that he is deeply skeptical of the value of large-scale lecture courses attended by dozens, or hundreds of students.
He advocates an overhaul of the educational system, which he concedes will require hiring more faculty. But he insisted such an approach will yield a higher quality educational outcome.
“I’m kind of a radical on this. Every single undergraduate student at UCSD ought to write a senior thesis or project… that really is a multi-year investigation with faculty involvement and supervision,” he said.
Director, UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, Scientific Director, Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine
Happily married for 27 years. Wife Connie plays a major role in the basic science curriculum for first year medical students at UCSD. Two children: daughter Kelly, who just graduated from the University of San Diego and is planning to attend graduate school in psychology, and son, Toby, a mechanical engineering major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and an ROTC participant.
Cooking fine dinners for family and friends.
“Hard work and dedication to high-impact goals bring great satisfaction.”