Hans Keirstead: Business Leader, Neuroscientist, running for Congress

Hans Keirstead

Dr. Hans Keirstead is a neuroscientist and founded AIVITA Biomedical, a company focusing on cancer—and facial cosmetics and beauty in order to fund their cancer work.

Keirstead was the first in the world to purify cancer stem cells and use them in an immunotherapy for cancer. With the same underlying technology, Keirstead is the first in the world to take stem cells and make them into pure skin precursors, which then secrete every factor relevant to human skin development.

He put that in a bottle. It makes one look good. And one hundred percent of the proceeds are used to treat women with ovarian cancer.

Hans grew up in rural Canada outside of Ontario. Raised in a farming, middle class family, Hans has been working to support his family since age nine. There were days he’d come home not knowing if he and his siblings would be able to eat dinner. Hans has worked hard to achieve all of his life’s successes, and understands the struggles many hardworking Americans face today.

Inspired by his parents to help others, Hans went to college to become a physician, but soon shifted to research. He studied at the University of British Columbia, and completed his Post-Doc at Cambridge in England. His aim was to develop more effective treatments to save and improve lives. He served for 15 years as Professor of Anatomy at UCI and led therapy breakthroughs for late-stage cancers, ALS and spinal cord injury.

Keirstead has launched multiple successful medical research companies in Orange County and is currently CEO at AIVITA Biomedical, where he is focusing on developing a cancer treatment that is proving to be the most effective treatment for cancer that has ever reached the final phase of clinical trials.

He has advised several members of Congress and U.S. Senators on healthcare and biotechnology. When then-President George W. Bush issued an executive order banning federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Hans stepped up to help fill the void. Serving as lead scientific advisor for the California Stem Cell Initiative (Prop 71), he toured the state to promote the ballot measure. He spoke to hospital leadership, unions, professors, doctors, nurses, and activists.

Prop 71 passed with nearly sixty percent of the vote and established a $3 billion stem cell research fund to support medical innovation in California.

Hans’ wife Niki is a leading neuroscientist focused on Alzheimer’s disease. Hans, Niki, and their son Connor are proud to call Laguna Beach their home.

In his spare time, Hans enjoys playing guitar and practicing martial arts with Connor.

Cooper: Is that why you look good? Because you’re using your own product?

Keirstead: (laughs) Of course I’m using my own product! And I’m 83! (laughs)

Cooper: (laughs) So when I first met you, you were working on spinal cord injury issues. Where is that today?

Keirstead: When we first met, I was working on a spinal cord treatment that has matured to treat humans. We’ve been just so successful with that, I’m just overjoyed. It’s gone through several companies, but where it’s at now is a company called Asterias [Biotherapeutics] running clinical trials treating people with complete spinal cord injury, no motor, no sensory below the level of the jaw, much like Christopher Reeve, who hired me back when we spoke last.

Cooper: That’s when we first met.

Keirstead: Yeah, that’s right. And these individuals with no motor, no sensory below the level of the jaw, after treatment, have use of their arms, motor and sensory, their hands, and their feet. And that’s with fifty percent of the dose. They’ve also treated two people with one hundred percent of the dose, and there are anecdotal reports of even better recovery. So I’m extremely excited about that.

Cooper: Where are the trials being conducted?

Keirstead: The trials are being conducted all over the U.S., concentrating in California, and run by Asterias. But it was our founding technology that developed that treatment. We’re very happy for the patients.

Cooper: That’s really great news. I was wondering how things had works out because I hadn’t heard anything. How did you get involved in cancer?

Keirstead: When I was doing spinal cord research, I was struck by the lack of funding by big companies in this sector. Spinal cord injury just represents too small a market for large corporations to spend the billions of dollars that it takes to develop a drug and get it to market.

So I decided, as a long-term plan, to develop a treatment for a large market indication, get it rolling, and then hook spinal cord injury on the back of that piece to carry it forward. So I got into cancer research, and my team and I developed a very, very efficacious treatment for cancer, in fact, the most efficacious treatment ever published in the literature.

We have seventy-two percent survival with no side effects. This company is now being very well funded, very well developed, and I’m very, very proud to say that we just submitted our first grant for spinal cord injury. I’ve got the infrastructure, I’ve got the bricks and mortar. I’ve got the amazing staff who make this possible, and I’ve got the gear. We can use all that to better spinal cord injury without having to build it anew just for spinal cord injury. That renders it commercially viable, so off we go, back into SCI.

Cooper: Wow, full circle!

Keirstead: Yeah, it was a long plan. I never dropped spinal cord injury research, it’s always been at the core of my desire to help people. I’ve been drawn to that as a neuroscientist. But I realized that the market was just too small to make a go. And we’ve seen that. Geron Corporation took our technology and they failed, not due to the technology, but due to their inability to fund the company. Asterias is now taking it, and they’re not having an easy go of it.

It’s very difficult to fund a small company that is only running in a small market like spinal cord injury. The strategy has to be different. I’ve always taken a very different approach to things. It’s not always met with comfort by my colleagues. But we decided to take a very different approach to spinal cord injury, to hook it on the back of another larger market to pull it along. That’s what we’ve done here at AIVITA with cancer.

Cooper: With your background as a scientist and dealing with issues that are difficult, to say the least, what do you think you’re bringing to the political arena? You’re now looking to become a Congressperson.

Keirstead: I’ve always worked in very, very difficult subjects: spinal cord injury, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, these very intractable problems. And it’s not only difficult problems, it’s an extremely difficult environment, where you’re looking at governments, large industry competitors, difficulties in funding, and an extremely difficult biology to conquer.

Those skill sets are perfectly translatable to politics; difficult problems and a very, very difficult environment, to say the least. Washington is not the cleanest of environments. The skill set of the scientist is to see through all the garbage, all the nonsense, all of the inaccuracies that are political talk in that arena and get to the fact. How about facts first? How about issues in front of politics? That’s what we should be doing.

The skill set of a scientist is perfectly suited, and I’d go so far as to say lacking in Washington. We don’t have anyone there with a broad, deep understanding of the healthcare system, for example, not a one. 435 members, and there’s no one there with a broad, deep understanding of what is twenty percent of our economy. We need that. We need the skill set of people with field experience in this sector, and we need the skill set of people who can look dispassionately at a very, very difficult problem that has been politicized, made partisan politics before everything, where we see our own administration denigrating our healthcare system for political gain. We need the approach of a scientist who filters through nonsense.

There are a thousand papers published in short periods of time on spinal cord injury. Some of them are good. Some of them are terrible. A scientist reads through them all, picks the gems, sees the truth, and then hones in on that. Then you get passionate and your conquer that piece. That’s what we do.

Cooper: What was it that motivated you to say, “I want to pull the trigger and actually do this”?

Keirstead: When I saw President Trump take office, I saw a denigration of consumer protections. I saw a shift of focus, of money, from the middle class to the elite, to the larger companies, not the smaller ones, to the extremely wealthy, not the moderately wealthy or middle class, certainly not the poor.

I grew up in a very poor environment, and I know that when my dad didn’t have a job, he wasn’t thinking about politics. He was thinking about feeding the kids. And when our government starts shifting focus away from the middle class and the lower classes socioeconomically, we walk a pathway that takes us to becoming a country like Venezuela, where the middle class was destroyed. And then what happens? The entire economy collapses.

We need to focus on that. That’s what got me interested. And then I realized that there’s no one in Congress with a broad, deep understanding of science, medicine, and healthcare. So I see a fit, a fit of everything that I have done in my past fitting a particularly important deficit in Congress. I think I can have an impact there, apply the same skills that I have used my entire career, and tune our healthcare system, and in so doing, get clout, get leverage as a freshman Congressman, no less, and then use that position of influence to address other deficits that our constituents here in the 48th district of California realize.

We’re concerned about the environment. We’ve got a Congressman who is killing our environment, voting for things that are absolutely against the wishes of our constituents. Why would we want more oil rigs off of our coastline when California does not burn oil on its energy grid? Who does that benefit here in the district? No one. Why would we denigrate our access to early warning satellite systems for weather when we’re a coastal district? That doesn’t benefit anyone here but large companies.

So we’ve got to take a conservative view here and bring the focus back onto the constituents of this district. And I can be the person on the hill who has a broad, deep understanding of healthcare, getting myself some leverage there to effect changes in other sectors, like assault weapons, like the environment, like women’s issues, etc.

Cooper: Do you hear from people in your district what the major concerns are that are happening on the ground here and what they feel should be done about it, across both aisles, both parties?

Keirstead: The major concern here in our district for Democrats and Republicans alike is the rising cost of healthcare. If you’re an individual, you’re getting battered. If you’re an individual who doesn’t have healthcare, you don’t have access. If you’re a business owner, you’re getting battered. The burn rate for a company increases tremendously every time healthcare costs go up, and they are rising to points that are out of control right now.

So whether it’s your pocket that needs more money or whether you don’t have any money in your pocket but you need healthcare, or if you’re an employer who wants to hire more people to get their product out into the world but you can’t because of rising healthcare costs, it’s doesn’t make any difference if you’re red or blue. Cancer certainly doesn’t care of you’re red or blue.

The constituents of the 48th district of California want access to quality, affordable healthcare. And we can do it. We’ve got a tax base that’s phenomenal. We have a medical infrastructure that’s phenomenal. And we have laws that facilitate it. There’s no reason why we can’t have quality, affordable healthcare for every person in this district and every person in this nation.

Hans Keirstead in his office at Aivita

The next most important issue for the constituents of the 48th district is the environment. We’ve got a Congressman, we’ve got a President, who are serially denigrating the environment. California’s coast is particularly attuned to this. Most people get to the beach every month. We live in a place where we breathe clean air and drink clean water, both of which are being denigrated with current policies, being worsened by current policies and our current political regime that we’ve got.

We need better focus on clean energy. Rather than propping up large oil companies, we need to be doing what California has started down the path of, which is fortifying the green and clean energy sector.

We’ve got forty percent of our nation’s workers of solar panels. Why are we trying to pass tariff changes that denigrate that sector of our economy? We don’t burn oil on our energy grid. Why are we shifting our resources to oil rather than clean and green energy systems? It’d be my goal to take us to a one hundred percent clean energy economy by 2050.

Cooper: Great. Hans I brought a person who voted for Trump. (turning to Robert) What questions would you like to ask?

R. Desmond: I’m a big believer in my Second Amendment, and a lot of the things that Hillary Clinton suggested along the way made me feel that I was scared for protecting some of my rights. I do agree that there’s no reason for people to carry automatic arms, but that was one of the biggest concerns I had. Who’s going to protect those constitutional rights? Why are we trying to wiggle around constitutional rights?

Keirstead: You’re talking about guns in particular, right?

Desmond: Guns in particular. One of my biggest things, my dad was in law enforcement for many years. I’ve taught safety classes, I’ve gone to safety classes. I was always worried about that. Healthcare is another big issue.

Keirstead: There are a lot of people in this district who are very, very concerned about gun control, changes to policy, protection of the Second Amendment of our Constitution. I’m with that. I have no problem with individuals carrying guns. It’s a constitutional right.

Where I draw the line is weapons of war. We should not be permitting bump stocks, where you can change a semi to a fully automatic weapon. We should not be permitting magazines that can carry more than 10 rounds. Something reasonable, where sporting use of guns is not made impractical with too few rounds, but we don’t put magazines in the hands of killers that can whip off 30 rounds in nine seconds.

We need to ensure that we have background checks that are universal and thorough across the country, in every single state, adhering to deep background checks that don’t only happen once, but multiple times through a gun owner’s life.

Things change. I’m a neuroscientist. Disease happens later in life. Let’s get people on a system of having to qualify themselves as mentally sound to carry a weapon that could kill somebody. We have to tighten up all the loopholes so you can’t buy a concealed-carry permit in one state and then take it to another state that doesn’t permit it.

We have to close what’s called the “boyfriend loophole.” If a couple experiences domestic abuse, usually it’s the man beating up the woman, and then he’s allowed, after getting a criminal record for it, to go out and buy a gun the next day. That woman has a 500 percent chance of getting murdered in her home. That’s the boyfriend loophole, and it’s got to be closed.

And lastly, we need research. The CDC has not been permitted the funds to conduct research on guns. Republicans just removed that prohibition concerning the Dickey amendment, but they did not fund it. It was politicalspeak with no power. So we still have no ability at all to do research on gun use in this country. Let’s do it for two reasons: to protect those gun carriers who are good people, who have sporting, hunting rights that they want to protect. Let’s fortify them in their use of guns. But let’s also use that data to stop killers.

Over 120 districts of our 435 districts have experienced gun massacres. Isn’t it time that Congress step up and plug that hole, start fighting those large organizations that are preventing us from doing the research, from plugging those holes, from bringing safety back to our constituents?

Desmond: On mental health, this is a great component of doing mental health. I’m sure since you’re a neuroscientist, I’m sure mental health is very important, and if there are a lot of loopholes protecting certain people with mental illnesses, I thought that was kind of—

Keirstead: Very good. Nice question. I don’t think a discussion of healthcare, a discussion of gun control can be had without a discussion of mental health. Mental health in our nation is under-served. As a proportion of disease, it is getting less funding. As a proportion of disease, there are fewer experts in the field because we’re not training them. We need more funding, more research on mental health, so we can take it away from being a stigma of something all in your head to being a diagnosed disease that can be treated. We need to do this for our veterans, for our aged, and for our diseased.

Every pursuit has myriad complications. But a wise person determines, what is the one thing from which everything follows in the wake? And in my business, it’s the medical excellence. You follow that medical excellence, you identify it and you follow it, and money comes to empower your team to build, resources come, Congress, politics comes, government, religion—everything can follow into that.

If you put your focus on the wrong thing, you lose. If you put money first, things crumble. If you put fame and fortune and self-aggrandizement first, things crumble. In my business, biotech, you need to put the one thing from which everything follows in its wake, and that is the excellence of the science. Keep your eye on that, and everything works.

Cooper: Build it and they will come.

Keirstead: Yes.