When Samuel H. Wood, M.D., Ph.D., began practicing medicine, he was driven by the passion to help intended parents realize their dream of growing a family.
As a reproductive endocrinologist and medical director of The Reproductive Sciences Center (RSC), a renowned La Jolla-based fertility clinic, Dr. Wood gets to practice his passion daily.
For more than 15 years, Wood has helped thousands of couples and intended parents grow their families safely and efficiently, using state-of-the-art technology and techniques. His practice has also helped expand the field of reproductive medicine by conducting clinical research on new fertility treatments and publishing those results in scientific journals. Many of the methods perfected by the advanced Assisted Reproductive Technology laboratory at RSC have now become standard and are practiced daily in fertility clinics across the country.
Wood's practice has been successful, and his methods efficient. As a result, his practice enjoys high pregnancy rates (83 percent overall, more than twice the national average) and patient-driven referrals account for most of his workload.
But Wood and his staff's efficiency and success create a mixed blessing. Most of the intended parents who come to Wood go forward with healthy pregnancies, but leave behind unused embryos. Some of these embryos are healthy, and some, using leading-edge techniques, have been tested and found to be unhealthy.
Intended parents have a difficult choice when confronted with the question of what to do with these remaining embryos. They can either choose to store them for later use, or discard them according to established federal guidelines.
Storage can be expensive, especially after a family has grown sufficiently. Many families will then choose to discard the embryos, which to Wood is a tragedy.
"I can understand their motivation," Wood said, "but it's such a waste, and I've seen it time after time."
To lessen the instances of disposal, Wood and his team have created an embryo adoption program for families to donate their unused healthy embryos for another infertile couple. The program is a success, but not many families are comfortable donating their genetic material to help someone else build a different family.
That's when Wood had another groundbreaking idea.
Because embryonic stem cells offer so much promise for creating important medical breakthroughs and treatments for debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's, Diabetes, Muscular Dystrophy and others, Wood saw an opportunity.
"One of the major challenges slowing down research into this field is the availability of new lines of embryonic stem cells," Wood said. "I knew that if we could assemble the right team, some parents would rather donate their unused, excess embryos for research, rather than dispose of them."
Wood assembled that team, principally with Chief Scientific Officer Andrew French, Ph.D., and thus Stemagen Inc., a privately funded embryonic stem cell research company, was born.
Diseases begin when cells in the body begin to fail, or die. Because embryonic stem cells can be turned into any one of the body's more than 200 different cell types, scientists believe they can be used as a kind of universal repair kit.
Because embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos, the ability to advance the science and realize its therapeutic potential depends largely on researcher's access to them.
By giving birth to Stemagen, Wood is able to speak to parents with excess embryos and offer them choices other than discarding these precious materials.
When parents approve, these embryos are then put in the hands of Dr. French, himself a world-renowned stem cell researcher from Australia.
Operating solely on private funding from Wood and other investors, Stemagen has already produced nine new lines of embryo-derived cells, more than all the other companies in San Diego combined.
These lines are important, both because they represent a streamlined, efficient process in which this science can advance, and because some of them, derived from embryos with genetic markers for diseases like Down's Syndrome or Tae Sachs, may help researchers better understand these diseases at their genetic level.
But Stemagen's research isn't restricted to working with fertilized embryos. Some research can be done with unfertilized eggs. These are called uniparental embryonic stem cells. In fact, Stemagen has recently announced it has become the first company in the United States to create multiple uniparental embryonic stem cell lines. To achieve this breakthrough, Stemagen used only donated eggs that were excess to an intended parent's reproductive needs.
There are many different ways to create embryonic stem cells, but, for a variety of reasons, uniparentals may be the closest to providing a real therapeutic benefit.
"Stemagen's goal," Wood explained, "is to take the 'potential' out of embryonic stem cell research, and hasten the day we can take treatments off the lab's bench and deliver them to the patient's bedside."
Wood is as passionate about helping people create a family as he is about easing the suffering people with debilitating diseases must endure.
"I'm lucky," Wood said. "I get to help create life, and use the excess materials from that process to help sustain and improve the lives of others."
Heald is principal of Beck Ellman Heald.
Reproductive Sciences Center: www.fertile.com