Paul Sanberg

Paul SanbergPaul Sanberg is the recipient of the 2016 Sigma Xi John P. McGovern Science and Society Award. 

Sanberg is senior vice president for Research, Innovation & Economic Development, Distinguished University Professor, and executive director of the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, Florida. His work has been instrumental in translating new pharmaceutical and cellular therapeutics to clinical trials and commercialization for Tourette syndrome, stroke, ALS, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s disease, and he has significant biotech and pharmaceutical industry experience in these areas.  

A Florida native, Sanberg trained in Canada at York University and the University of British Columbia, as well as at the Australian National University and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and held faculty appointments at the University of Cincinnati and Brown University, among others. He is an inventor on 42 U.S. and 70 foreign patents and has served on numerous scientific advisory boards for health-related foundations and companies. He is the author of more than 600 scientific articles and 14 books, and is considered a highly cited scientist, with more than 25,000 citations (Google Scholar) to his published work. 

He is editor-in-chief of Technology and Innovation and serves on editorial boards for more than 30 scientific journals. Sanberg is president and a Charter Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, chair of the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame Advisory Board, and has served as president of a number of professional societies, including the American Society for Neural Transplantation and Repair, the Cell Transplant Society, and International Behavioral Neuroscience Society. 

He is the 2015 Medalist of the Florida Academy of Sciences, Florida Inventors Hall of Fame inductee, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the Royal Societies of Chemistry, Public Health and Medicine, and an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador. He also serves on the nomination evaluation committee of the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Smithsonian Innovation Festival selection committee, and advisory board of the APLU Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness, and Economic Prosperity. 

Interview with Paul Sanberg

Transcript of Interview

Heather Thorstensen: Hello and welcome to this Google Hangout from Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. My name is Heather Thorstensen and I am the Manager of communications here at Sigma Xi. Today, my guest is Dr. Paul Sanberg of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Dr. Sanberg will receive Sigma Xi's John P. McGovern Science and Society Award in November at Sigma Xi's Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference in Atlanta.

The award recognizes his contribution to not only science, but the impact that science has on society. Dr. Sanberg is the senior vice president for research, innovation and economic development at the University of South Florida. He is also a distinguished professor and he is the executive director of the university's Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair. Welcome to the hangout, Dr. Sanberg.

Paul Sanberg: Thank you Heather. It's an honor to be here.

Thorstensen: Let's start by talking about the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, of which you are the executive director. What are the primary goals of the center?

Sanberg: The center is really a research center. It is part of the medical school. It's within a clinical department, which is neurosurgery and brain repair department. We are focused on finding therapies for debilitating brain diseases. The faculty in there, the students, the staff are all geared towards understanding Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, stroke, traumatic brain injury, mental illness, a number of areas that affect the brain in our lives.

Thorstensen: This center is focused on getting medical advances to the patients and you have personal experience of dealing with the frustration of waiting for medical advances to be available to help somebody that you love yourself. Could you talk about that?

Sanberg: Thanks for asking that question. I think it's important for me and I know that what I find out in this world is that when I talk to many people, is they all have a personal experience. Everybody has a personal experience at some point about the need for understanding medical advances, appropriate treatments for loved ones. I was studying Parkinson's, Huntington's disease for many years and had a tragedy in my life with my father having a stroke. That led me down a new road into understanding more about stroke and how to treat it.

Up to that point, which was about 20 years ago, we weren't treating stroke any different than we'd been treating it for many years and we still don't have a lot of great treatments for it unless we get to it very early. We have been dedicating much of our lab and much of my own work into trying to find understandings for how stroke occurs, why it occurs, what happens to the brain and how can we fix it.

Thorstensen: Your early research led to some new understandings in why brain cells die in neurological disorders and in drug abuse research. What did you find?

Sanberg: Early on, what we found was that there are mechanisms in the brain that actually can, when they're overused, can kill neurons, they can kill brain cells. That's become a big part of a lot of our work in many brain diseases now. We call this effect excital toxicity. In others words, there are certain neurotransmitters, chemicals which transmit information to nerve cells and when these are overabundance or they're too much, they can excite the nerve almost to death. We know this process occurs in a number of diseases. A lot of drug therapy in fact for many years now has been trying to understand that process, reduce that process of causing death of cells. We know many other mechanisms now for why cells die in the brain. When we understand the basic science, that's when we can come around and try to find really good treatments to correct this.

Thorstensen: Then moving on to more recent research, that has been on discovering ways to repair a damaged brain and you helped lead the team that demonstrated that some cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood can be made into neural cells to help repair the brain. How does that repair process work?

Sanberg: One of the approaches that we've explored, clearly we've explored drug approaches to try to understand various molecules that might work, but another area that we've explored is one that involves putting in new cells. For many years, we've been looking at ways to put in new cells in the brain to try to regrow the brain or to recover damage. We work with a number different cells including animal cells and eventually we start looking at cells that were derived from umbilical cord blood cells, in bone marrow cells. Actually, both those cells groups, we call them a group because they contain many different types of cells, both of those contain early progenitor cells or what we call stem cells. These are used to travel around the body at sites of injury and produce repair. It's almost like an endogenous repair mechanism.

Umbilical cord blood cells when a baby is born you end up with a lot of umbilical cord blood that you can store for example and you might be able to use it in the future for certain diseases as if you're doing a bone marrow transplant for someone with a cancer or something where they're getting rid of their whole bone marrow system. People store umbilical cord blood for babies sometimes in hopes that that will be available in case a baby gets a certain cancer or an anemia that might need a bone marrow transplant, but you're using this instead. What we found is that those two cell areas, the bone marrow and the umbilical cord blood, we found very early on that you can in fact use various techniques, various chemicals to induce some of those cells to become neural cells. Actually, you can make them into brain cells that become neurons or brain cells that become glial cells, the supporting cells of the brain.

What was interesting then is that we though if that happens then maybe we can use those cells, transplant those cells into the brains of damaged animals for example that we create an animal model of the disease, and see if we can restore function in those brains by providing these new cells. Over the years now, what we found in fact is that it is working. It's working to the point where we're now into clinic, many sites in the world in fact are now putting these types of cells into the clinic trying to treat patients and looking at various clinical studies to see whether it really works or not. That's so important because this is a long process.

For any students that are listening to this and want to get into this, this work we looked at early on was almost 20 years ago and we're now starting to really understand some clinical trials with this. It's a long process, and one that can really be fruitful. When you start talking of biological things, it's not like an engineering piece of metal to make a part, it can take many years. We're pretty excited about the fact that we think that various cell types from either the bone marrow or the umbilical cord blood could be used to treat patients with various diseases of the nervous system and other diseases of the body.

Thorstensen: When you start talking about stem cell research that becomes a controversial issue for some people, what do you think it's important for people to think about when they are hearing and learning about stem cell research?

Sanberg: Again, stem cell research is still in its infancy. Stem cell research has really been around for a while, but maybe thirty odd years or more, and as I mentioned earlier, bone marrow transplants are really considered stem cell transplants. When we give someone bone marrow, because that's where our own body stem cells as adults or young individuals reside that in fact that when we do those transplants it's almost like getting a stem cell transplant.

The controversy exists in the fact that when an embryo is formed that the embryo starts out with a number of cells that we call stem cells. What makes a stem cell a stem cell [is it’s] a cell that can replicate itself, but then it can replicate, become some other type of cell. In other words, it's not a muscle cell becoming a muscle cell, it's a stem cell becoming another stem cell and becoming a muscle cell for example. These stem cells are very useful for understanding the biology of development and for understanding potential therapies.

When you use a stem cell from an embryo, it is possible that you can destroy the embryo. Therefore, that's the controversy, it is related to the ethics of using stem cells from that source. As we're understanding this so the last decades what we're finding is that stem cells are in our bodies already, that stem cells can be found in other sources, that you may not have to destroy an embryo to get certain stem cells and that it really is a fundamental biology system within our bodies… One of the theories of aging, in fact is that our stem cell system in our bodies is no longer working as well as we age and so therefore it's not helping us to remain young.

Stem cells can be controversial, but when you work in areas like umbilical cord blood as I mentioned or bone marrow derived cells or stem cells from other parts of the bodies, that's not controversial. It's important to keep all research alive at least and going because then we understand the basic biology and we will find treatments that are noncontroversial.

Thorstensen: Could you talk about the benefits that the stem cell research could have say for somebody living with a damaged brain? When they are getting stem cells, how much could it help with their stroke or traumatic brain injury or a degenerative disease?

Sanberg: The potential is there for a cure, there's no doubt about it. Whether it will occur in my lifetime or your lifetime, I don't know, but the potential is there for a cure because we will understand the development of the brain, we'll understand the cells that are used, we'll understand the types of cells we can put back in, that's so important. The potential is there. The animal data shows that in fact it can produce significant recovery and the human data as it's being tested now hopefully will show that. Again, human clinical trials need to go on to make sure that we can actually prove that these therapies work.

These are diseases that have no other real therapies right now. The drug studies we don't really have any drugs for stroke, for chronic stroke for example. We don't have good therapies for Parkinson's aside from helping with the symptoms like giving certain drugs. There are so many therapies that we want to develop and so many diseases that this is such an important research area and so I'm very positive about it.

Thorstensen: That's very exciting to hear you say that this is the potential for the cure because so many people are hoping for that. Do we have a sense in the medical community of how far away we are from knowing if that's what this is going to be?

Sanberg: That's a really good question. I think when I was younger I would have answered that “oh, in five years or in 10 years.” Those years have passed and we're still doing research on it. It takes a long time to do this research, it takes money, it takes investment, it takes companies to be involved and to be partners in these studies because academics we only do a certain amount of the research. We get it to the point where we think it's really interesting and potential, but we're not the ones that are going to go out there and develop this story much.

There's a lot of faculty that they want to start companies right now with their ideas and do things and a lot of students out there wanting to do that, but you really need many ways that big companies out there to say, "This is really promising, this is something that's going to really help and we can make some money at it to be able to pay for the development of these." You need the governments to come on board and say, "This is really important technology." Just as Silicon Valley was important base technology for us to do microcircuits and all sorts of things that this type of biology of stem cells or of similar type of cell therapies is so important that we want to fund it and create a technology that the United States is in the lead of and that can help across the world.

Thorstensen: Hard to pin down a timeline because it does depend on so many factors of the funding and the partnerships and support.

Sanberg: Correct. Yes, a little longer. It is hard to pin it down. I would love to say that we will have something tomorrow and I'm sure there's people out there that think we'll have something very soon. I think we need to follow the process, we need to get people excited about doing this research, and I think something will develop with time.

Thorstensen: Are you seeing the support there for the funding and the partnerships? Are those there in how you want them to be?

Sanberg: I think that the funding is adequate for moving some things forward. I think that it's all part of governmental funding. Certain states have really funded this significantly such as the state of California put significant dollars in the stem cell research. I think across the world actually because that many people feel that this is a fundamental technology and a fundamental biology that we need to understand that many countries around the world have put in enormous amounts of money to develop the technologies, get patents for these technologies and develop products that could help the world.

I think there is a lot of potential. I think there could be more done clearly. I think that large major drug companies could come on board faster and get more involved. What we're seeing right now in our economies is that in fact that it's harder to get early technologies developed. Most of the investment by large companies, and by venture capitalists, are usually in technologies that have been developed further or long further lines that we normally do at universities. It's a struggle sometimes for many people. We just have to go out there and keep plugging away and keep getting our message out there.

Thorstensen: Speaking of patents, you have more than one hundred patents worldwide and are considered a highly cited scientist. I was wondering, what do you think it takes to move ideas out of the research phase and into a phase where the therapy or new technology can actually help the people that it's trying to help?

Sanberg: That's a great question because this is a fundamental educational question as we really look at developing scientists in the future. In Sigma Xi, I've been a member since I was very young and it's an important organization and it develops students. That's the great thing about Sigma Xi is you have annual conference which has also got students. As these students develop, what they need to learn early on is that in fact there's research and there's also the translation of that research, that if they believe in their research and that it translates to society in general and not just stays in a laboratory and becomes extremely basic research, which is great too, but that basic research then becomes a publication, which is exciting.

If they really think that their research can go further and go into translating to help society and benefit the economy and help people with various medical diseases such as these, then they need to learn about the invention process. They need to learn in fact that inventing is just another leg in the stool for being a scientist. I was not trained in that. When you talk about my patents, those came later in life, I was already a full professor. I realized that I can't get my research translated and companies interested in funding for it unless I protect it and provide intellectual protection from the technology. Not because I think that's so important to protect in many ways from a personal point of view of discovering something, but if you really want to translate on what this government and most governments around the world say is that if you create something novel that no one else has done and has a use, then you can apply for a patent and if it gets issued, then we will give protections for say 20 years that no competitors can come in and do that.

That's so important because if you really want to translate your research, you've got to offer that company that you're going to license this to or develop it with some protection and say, "It may take five to 10 years to develop this into a product." But your investment in that product is going to be protected for a period of time so that when you actually put it on the market, you're not going to have all these people coming in with generics and everything right away. It's important that that will allow the company to feel secure to invest in the product.

Invention is very important to get your ideas and discoveries out there. I hope that the students listening to this and the young faculty take this to heart and make this just part of their tool chest. Many universities now, including our university, have very robust programs in teaching and encouraging students and faculty to invent, to take their research to that next level.

Thorstensen: It's a good time to mention that you are the president of the National Academy of Inventors. Since you mentioned that you didn't have this training for invention as you were going through your career, what training helped you?

Sanberg: I really learned about it when I took a break from academics for a little bit and I went to work with a company because I thought this would help get some products developed and some therapies, especially in cell therapy, to the marketplace and to help people, which is what I would love to see. Once I was in the company, it was like, "Oh my God, I got ..." It was like getting an MBA on the job, it was like all the stuff I didn't know. You know how fairly distinguished scientists have trained a lot of students and there was a whole out there that I didn't know about. I learned about it and I realized that this company isn't going to be able to invest in these things unless we license and get patents for potential products.

I got a quick education and then when I went back to academics, I took that education with me and I realized that in fact if we want to now take our academic work and our discoveries and we want to move it further and really help people with it outside there, especially in the market place, then we need to understand the invention process. I encourage that at this university and it worked great at this university. A lot of faculty started to look at their research to take those to patents to get them licensed by companies. A lot of students have done the same thing. We have a student incubator where we cater the students who want to start businesses and we have like 40 student companies almost that are in this. These are started by students and they need to understand all this stuff about a little bit about business and all the different ways to move forward.

I guess it's part of that movement that's happening across this country right now. I eventually became president of the National Academy of Inventors, which is an academy of universities, now over 200 of them research universities that have said that invention and helping and economic development and moving products to society is important and moving our discoveries to society is important. It's not just for the elite universities that tend to do this anyways. It is a group of institutions that honor and help teach and train their inventors at their universities whether they're students, staff or faculty. It also honors the best of the best in this country. We have a Fellows Program for example where we have the best of the best academic inventors that become Fellows of the organization like many other organizations. That's been a big honor for me and has allowed me to go around the country and the world and talk about the importance of invention and how it keeps us at the forefront of so many different ideas.

Thorstensen: That's great. You mentioned that the academy is mostly university-based. Some of Sigma Xi members are not located at universities. Do you have any invention training-related advice for them?

Sanberg: Absolutely. When I say university-based, actually the academy caters to universities, it also has not-for-profit research organizations, has medical centers that do research as well as government agencies. What it does not have at this point are for-profits, but involvement. We have involvement with them, but we don't have them as members per se. That may change with time. Those faculty students who are not necessarily universities, if they're in a not-for-profit research institute or others, many of those want to be affiliated with the National Academy of Inventors.

Most research institutes now are trying to push to get their research out there to help. We saw a big push of this from 2009, 2010 because of the drop in the economy and recession that we had that government grants are going down. What we're finding in all our university, as the vice president of the university, what we're finding is our relations with corporations and private institutions is increasing with dollars. That's what keeping us going in many ways when our government funding is down. In order to work with companies, in order to work with the corporate sector, we need to understand the language and we need to show that our discoveries are important and that will help them in the future.

If they're a for-profit company and they're not part of the National Academy of Inventors, actually many for-profit companies have their own inventor programs if they're doing research. I've visited IBM and they acknowledge many of their distinguished inventors. Drug companies do the same thing. If they're interested in this, I think they can find out and you know what? They can always go and contact me and I'd be happy to talk to them about it.

Thorstensen: Great. Another piece of service that you do is to serve on the committee that evaluates nominations for the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation and that's the highest award given by the US government for technological achievement bestowed by the president. What is it like to serve on that committee?

Sanberg: There's an old Saturday Night Live routine. I think the guy goes, "I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy." When I get on that committee, that's how I feel. There's some great, great people on that committee and there's some great amazing applicants and nominations for the national medal. These are our laureates. Sweden had a Nobel laureates, but the National Medal of Science, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, those are our laureates from United States. We see the best of the best in there.

The nice thing about being on the Technology Innovation Medal one is that these are people that have translated their research. They have worked in companies and the companies of that amazing things created amazing products for their individuals that have really discovered something and it's created new products that have had fundamental effects in this world. For me to look through these resumes and see these are these people and try to decide who is worthy of this is so difficult because everybody seems to be worthy, it's just amazing. I met some great people through this. It's amazing how these people are so much into helping humanity.

What I've noticed is that it's not about "they did this" in order to make so much money for themselves and have that kind of lifestyle; it's about creating things to help humanity. That to me is so powerful the message. It's been an honor to be on it, I'm still on it for a while. Of course, I would love to see as many great scientists and inventors like get this medal. I hope people nominate across this nation great people for it.

Thorstensen: Great, thank you. Thank you for your insight into that and congratulations again on your McGovern Award.

Sanberg: Thank you so much Heather, it's been an honor to talk to you.

Thorstensen: Thank you. For anybody who would like to see Dr. Sanberg, he will be speaking at Sigma Xi's Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference and that meeting is taking place November 10th through 13th in Atlanta, Georgia. You can find more information about that meeting on Sigma Xi's website, Thank you.