Regenerative Outcomes Foundation is proud to present the Pioneers of Hope, a series of our founder Doug Oliver’s personal interviews with leading influencers in the Regenerative Medicine movement. These articles are our way of sharing the hope that this field promises to all, from top legislators, great policy minds, researchers, patients, and providers, as well as many others around the world who are molding tomorrow’s discoveries with today’s visions.
Pioneers of Hope will inspire, impassion, and reveal the sentiment, experiences, and motivations that drive these special individuals with unique perspectives reminding us of our common humanity and shared goals for making regenerative health a reality.
Pioneer of Hope: Harry Reid
Recently, Doug sat down with former U.S. Senator and Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Reid, among other major legislative achievements across his distinguished career in national politics, was instrumental in passing the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law in 2016 to help move safe drugs and procedures more quickly through the FDA approval process, as well as fund groundbreaking medical research at the National Institutes of Health. In the interview, Reid praised Doug’s work to help find “a road map” for patients seeking cures through regenerative therapies and said if we’re going to truly help people, provide real hope, we -- all of us, doctors, politicians, researchers -- need to have fewer “Why don’t we do this?” meetings and more “Here’s what we’re going to try to do” meetings. Reid is a fighter who’s in the thoughts and hearts of all of us at The Regenerative Outcomes Foundation as he undergoes treatment for recently discovered pancreatic cancer.
Doug Oliver: This interview series is all about patients and their hopes. My intent is to capture a little bit of what your views are, and what your goals and dreams are for patients. We’re celebrating the one-year anniversary of the 21st Century Cures Act, and I’ve talked to several folks in regards to this.
The interview series for the Foundation is called “Pioneers of Hope.” You are a pioneer of hope, and that’s why I’m here.
Sen. Harry Reid: Well, I wish that the legislation that got so much attention had some money behind it. That’s the problem we have. I learned years ago you can pass a bill that has the most beautiful name in the world, but if you have no resources to back it up, it doesn’t help. So that’s my concern. I admire everyone that worked hard to get that done but we have to now spend some money on it. We’re spending $800 million a year on defense, we could spend a few dollars on eyes, health generally. My feeling about healthcare in America today - NIH isn’t getting enough money, I’m just so concerned about the healthcare situation we have in America today. You know, we could have a universal flu vaccine, but we don’t have it. And this year, we had a bad strain of the flu - thousands of people are dying from the flu. We need one universal vaccine that will take care of all flu. I talked with Francis Collins, head of NIH - before the last government shutdown, they were very close to getting that done. Now it’s way off track.
So that’s my feeling about your good work. I think what you’re doing is wonderful, because people need a road map to get the help they need, and there’s a lot of... bad things happen out there, people are taking advantage of people who are hurt and sick, and a lot of the stem cell stuff has a bad reputation because people have been hurt. We know in the last six months that people have been blinded as a result of getting stem cells, but we need someone, and I appreciate you, Doug, you’re using your experience for just that - trying to find out a road map to help people get from here to there, because who knows who is a good organization to go to? You were lucky. You took a chance and it worked out well. Those two fine men in Florida, I talked to them, as you know, they were exasperated at how much difficulty they’ve had trying to do the right thing. So anyway, that’s how I feel about it.
Doug Oliver: In your statements it’s clear that you’ve taken a 30,000-foot view, being a lawmaker and leader of leaders for so many years. That’s what I appreciate in you. I’m newer to this arena, but already as an advocate and ambassador, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, like you mention.
There is a lot of good work being done, both at low levels and the highest research levels. There are some amazing stories… and patients are realizing that their hope is a valid hope. There are real cures and real treatments on the horizon. But now it’s all about access, right?
Sen. Harry Reid: Doug, here’s the situation. We’ve all seen it. Somebody is young… Alzheimer's - I have a friend here in Boulder City. He was a man of means, not wealthy but he was okay. He wanted to know who could help his poor, beautiful wife. He tried everything. Took her to Mexico. Spent a lot of money down there. He might as well have taken that money and thrown it out on the street and let somebody pick it up who needed it. That’s what you need to try to avoid. People going to Mexico for treatment.
Doug Oliver: The only way we can do that is to have it here.
Sen. Harry Reid: Of course.
Doug Oliver: The expedited pathway, the RMAT pathway, which is the quickest pathway to the clinical trials that 21st Century Cures mandated the FDA to create. They did, and it’s available. But there are so few clinical trials - it’s been over a year, and they have granted 11 RMATs.
Sen. Harry Reid: That’s just dealing with eyes?
Doug Oliver: No, there’s not one that does deal with eyes.
Sen. Harry Reid: Isn’t that awful?
Doug Oliver: Yes, in a way it’s progress, but at a rate that is unacceptable. I think that we should find a way to open up more meaningful access to the pathway. Let social policy determine the unmet need, and FDA approve the trials with less gatekeeping that is not protecting the public from harm but policing what conditions innovators are allowed to pursue. That’s a function of social health policy, not safety or efficacy determination.
Sen. Harry Reid: The last meeting we had, you got my view about why we don’t move more quickly in the FDA and many other places in government. Why? Because I learned in my government experience that bureaucrats, whether they’re in the business world, the athletic world, or the political world, the bureaucrats - here’s their philosophy. Very short and to the point. If it hasn’t been done before, we’re not going to do it. As a result of that, we don’t do a lot of stuff that should be done. Why? Because it hasn’t been done before.
Doug Oliver: The distinguished former Senate Majority leader on the Republican side, Bill Frist, said something very similar just the other day when I was talking with him. He basically said, “It is not going to be the government that forces innovation. It’s going to be a combination of demand and patients who have a loud voice and insist upon it.”
Sen. Harry Reid: Well, Bill Frist and I are friends. We had a few differences in the Senate, you know, but to show you how I look back at Bill Frist - the role of government, he was a patriot. But whenever it came up, an issue dealing with medical, his whole demeanor changed. He was a man interested in helping people get better, to live, to be healed. That was his whole goal in life. That’s why he, as a young man, was one of the first organ transplant people in America.
Doug Oliver: Yes, exactly, and this is the one thing that I think Francis Collins has told me is bringing everybody together. We talk often about the common humanity in shared goals that this whole revolution of regenerative medicine carries with it. Senator, I’ve had Senators and Congress people, I’ve had Chief Executive Officers of major pharmaceutical companies, ask me if the kind of treatment that I had might work for their mothers. They’ve asked me if I could give them information. It speaks to the point that everybody feels the importance of this and everybody wants it.
What can a patient do, a single voice, to help bring this about? You’ve been a fierce advocate all of your political career, you’re known for being a tough senator who will not move away from helping other individuals get what they need. I honor you for that. But what can one patient do? What can I do, what can some of the other folks that I know do as individuals to help widen this crack we’ve created in the ice?
Sen. Harry Reid: What we have now is the state government is tired of waiting for Congress to do things. Now we can’t do as much on the State level as you can on the Federal level, of course, but I think people should understand that there is some good stuff being done on a state level. I think people who care about this issue should be an advocate not only with members of Congress, which is essential, but also with their own representatives. There are things you do. Now my feeling about everything in life is this. We tend to have a meeting - you and I get together with some of our people, “What are we gonna do about this?” We sit down for two hours and everybody says “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do this?” When the meeting’s all over, we’ve had one of those meetings called a “why don’t we do this?” meeting.
We would be better off if we sat down, talked for an hour or so, and then say “Okay, here’s what we’re going to try to do. We’re going to try to do two things. We’re not going to try to do everything that needs to be done, we’re going to try to do two things.” And that would be my recommendation to you, Doug. Narrow what you’re asking for. Don’t ask for the world. Ask for maybe just a little bit. And once you get that, then you move to something else.
Doug Oliver: So, taking it piece by piece and doing it well, and building on it.
Sen. Harry Reid: Yes, that’s right. You’re not going to change the world.
Doug Oliver: Are you suggesting that state-level initiatives are places where patients and others should investigate taking some time to develop?
Sen. Harry Reid: Look around the country. What is one of the best things that ever happened in healthcare in America? The Massachusetts healthcare plan by Romney, which he tried to run away from when he was running for President. But it was a wonderful thing he did, that paved the way for healthcare in America. And it was all done on the state level.
Doug Oliver: So, decentralization of policy is sometimes not a bad thing.
Sen. Harry Reid: No.
Doug Oliver: How do patients get centralized protection in a situation like that?
Sen. Harry Reid: Again, look at Massachusetts. Patients there are treated as well as they are any place in the country. Everybody can go to a doctor when they’re sick.
Doug Oliver: It sounds like you trust that if policy is built properly within states, it’s very effective.
Sen. Harry Reid: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not one or the other. You need to work both.
Doug Oliver: That makes sense. From what I hear with patients, for instance with the new implementation of Cures, a large extent patients are very supportive of a focus on safety and efficacy. They’re willing to wait some more - they’ve been patted on the head for 25 years while being told a cure was coming in 5 - so we’re sort of used to waiting. But we don’t want our hope deferred unnecessarily, now that we know that possibilities are really out there.
Sen. Harry Reid: I can remember fifteen years ago, I got a ton of money… At three o’clock in the morning, I called the guy in California named Klein that was pushing this. I can still remember the doctor’s name was Bluestein. He told me “Great, we’re going to have a cure for diabetes in three or four years.” Now it’s been fifteen. That doesn’t mean what we did was bad, it’s just that we have to keep trying.
Doug Oliver: Well Senator, on behalf of the Regenerative Outcomes Foundation and its Board of Directors and myself, I want to thank you for your time again.
Sen. Harry Reid: Doug, you keep in touch. You’re a good man. Your heart’s in the right place, and I appreciate very much having gotten to know you as a result of a good man, Lamar Alexander.
Doug Oliver: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.