Dr Hans Keirstead Campaign

In The Wake of a Trump Presidency, a Stem Cell Scientist Runs For Congress

If elected, he would be the only person in Congress with training in medical research.

CARLY CASSELLA
31 JAN 2018
 

"It was never an intention of mine to go into politics. Ever," stem-cell researcher Dr. Hans Keirstead told Science AF.

But in the wake of a Trump presidency, standing up for fact and reason has never seemed more important.

 

"A compelling factor was my realization that there is nobody in the House of Representatives with a deep broad understanding of science or the medical health care system. No one," said Keirstead, who has a PhD in neuroscience.

"That is extraordinary to me. It's one-fifth of our economy and there is nobody there that deeply understands it."

For fifteen years, Keirstead was a leading professor with the largest lab at the University of California Irvine's school of medicine. As a researcher, he has developed several life-altering treatments for cancer and spinal cord injury. As a businessman, he has built and sold three biotech companies and is now on his fourth.

"It turns out my career is culminating in a set of skills ideally suited to the deficits of the House," Keirstead said.

"I understand regulation, lobbying and drug pricing. I've been to the FDA multiple times. I hire people, I choose their benefits program and their health care."

"The scientific method is so well suited to politics, and unfortunately it's not been there at all," he added.

 

Keirstead is after Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's (R) seat in California's 48th District. Rohrabacher has held this seat for 28 years, but has only managed to pass three bills in that time, scoring a pathetic 0.01 percent in efficiency - the lowest efficiency rating possible.

Rohrabacher's less than impressive resume, in combination with his controversial ties to Russia, have led the Cook Political Report to add him to a list of top 10 Congressmen most likely to lose their job in 2018.

And Keirstead - one of 8 Democratic candidates - has been named frontrunner in the race.

"Politics is at an all-time low right now," said Keirstead, who has been endorsed by 314 Action, a non-profit committed to getting more scientists in office.

"We need a more scientific approach in Congress. Truth-telling, fact ahead of opinions, dispassionate assessment, and issues in front of politics."

Modernizing the FDA

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As a Congressman, one of Keirstead's primary concerns will be modernizing the FDA.

The FDA is notoriously under-funded and its system highly inefficient, says Keirstead, leaving experts at the agency overworked and woefully underpaid. Incidentally, staff turnover is high, which means a lack of continuity for treatments that often take years to approve.

 

As it stands, the FDA's system is particularly cumbersome. When researchers like Keirstead approach the FDA with a potential new treatment, they are met with a panel of about 15 experts. Typically, after some discussion and debate, the panel sends the researchers away to conduct further research.

The problem is, when the researchers return several months and millions of dollars later, the staff on the panel have often been reshuffled. And just like that, it's back to square one.

"Big pharma gets involved in the later stages of clinical trials. But for the innovators doing the phase I and phase II type of work it is a doggedly slow system, highly inefficient and exceedingly expensive," Keirstead told Science AF.

"I can't tell you how many stories I know of where the companies just run out of money. And it's nobody's fault but the system."

According to Keirstead, providing a living wage for workers at the FDA is a crucial first step to improving the efficiency of the system.

Nevertheless, just this year, President Trump proposed a $1.2 billion cut to the government agency.

 

The proposed cuts would directly harm small business owners and innovators like Keirstead, who will inevitably be slapped with larger and more prohibitive user fees - just so the FDA can do its job.

For Keirstead, funding agencies like the FDA, the NIH, and Planned Parenthood is paramount for scientific innovation and economic development.

"If you shut off funding for science and medicine, seven years later, on average, the economy drops. Remember this is one fifth of our economy," Keirstead said.