Stem Cell Scientist Discusses New Drug Development Process

Pharmaceutical companies should turn to stem cells for a more effective and cost-efficient way to experiment with new medications, Harvard professor Lee L. Rubin said in a presentation yesterday.

Rubin, who is the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology professor and a director at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said that because stem cells mimic the biological environment of the human body, they are an effective precursor to the long and pricey clinical trial phase.

Rubin was critical of the current model for drug development, which costs upwards of $1 billion per successful drug due to the extremely high failure rate of experimental medication. Big Pharma’s current business model is to produce several hundred potential compounds a year and simply “hope one of them works,” he said.

“Most scientists agree that the drug discovery system, as currently practiced in the pharmaceutical industry, is bad,” Rubin said.

The stem cell expert advocated testing the effectiveness of medication on the cellular level using stem cells—which he argued serve as strong models for human physiology. Today, experimental drugs usually do not experience the environment of a human cell until the medicine has reached clinical trials, after millions of dollars have already been sunk into the potentially ineffective drug.


Stem cells have traditionally been used to model embryo development in vitro and as a source of cells for cell replacement therapy. Rubin believes they have yet more potential.

“Instead of using stem cells as the therapeutic, use stem cells to discover the therapeutic,” he said.

But Rubin said that large pharmaceutical companies tend to stick with institutional approaches to drug development.

“Most big companies have a certain level of inertia ... and pharmaceutical companies tend to follow that trend,” Rubin said.

But Rubin acknowledge that because pharmaceutical companies function as businesses, they must follow sensible profit-making strategies, opening the door for his innovative proposal.

One student in attendance said he appreciated the lecture’s applied approach to science.

“Rather than focusing on the broad science of stem cells and regenerative biology, this seminar was most helpful in elucidating the direction and impact of this kind of research,” Rhed Shi ’15 said. “I think that is a very important aspect of science and how it is relevant to society.”