Stem cell executive discusses latest regenerative medicine technology

Lizzy Thomas

California Institute of Regenerative Medicine chair, Jonathan Thomas, (Lizzy ’14, John ’16, Matt ’17) spoke about stem cell research and regenerative medicine May 23 during third and fourth periods in Ahmanson Lecture Hall.

Thomas gave a history of important advances in medicine and medical technology, starting with the development of the polio vaccine in 1955, and explained that California is the current leading center for stem cell research.

“After the breakthrough of Dolly [the first cloned sheep] in 1996, stem cell research stalled,” he said. “Everybody was really scared about what the next step would be, and all sorts of laws were passed to make human clones illegal. Then federal funding was cut and it brought to a halt lots of exciting work, until California passed Proposition 71 in 2004 [which created his agency].”

He said that the public outlook on stem cell research has changed significantly since then.

“The first human embryo was cloned last year. How many of you knew that?” he asked. “People see the amazing potential this has to totally change medicine and the way we deal with disease.”

Thomas also spoke about cutting-edge experiments that were still in the trial phase, but that have the potential to revolutionize the way doctors treat cancer.

“I thought that both his history and the history of modern science were riveting,” Oliver Sanderson ’15 said. “How he presented CIRM’s programs showed the incredible feats achieved every day really inspired me to more strongly consider a future in the sciences.”

The science department invited Thomas to speak after he mentioned to Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts that he would be willing to give a presentation about his work.

“In about an hour, Dr. Thomas provided a broad overview of the cutting-edge of cellular biology research that only someone in his position could provide,” science teacher Blaise Eitner said. “I appreciated how he commented on the necessity of examining the ethical challenges that future biotechnological advances will pose, in addition to describing the huge potential benefits for health care. It was such a privilege to have him speak to our students.”

Though Thomas had long been interested in stem cell research, he only became chair of CIRM in 2011 after a career in investment banking. He graduated summa cum laude with degrees in biology and history from Yale, and holds a doctorate, with a medical focus, in Commonwealth history from Oxford as well as a J.D. from Yale Law School.

“Mr. Thomas was a great speaker,” Sarah Winshel ’15 said. “I attended a USC stem cell research project earlier in this year and it sparked an interest in regenerative medicine that was only furthered by Mr. Thomas.”