Interview Preview: Dr. Hans Keirstead
If you were to write a fairy tale centered around a living personification of the American Dream, Dr. Hans Keirstead would be as strong a contender for the protagonist’s role as any you could hope to invent on paper.
Born and raised on a farm in British Columbia, Keirstead devoted himself to medicine, working hard to obtain his PhD before immigrating to America. Since then he has educated and innovated, and applied those experiences toward groundbreaking research that has revolutionized medicine while impacting and saving an incalculable number of lives.
His story captures the very essence of the American dream. From his impoverished rural upbringing to his robust career as a groundbreaking neuroscientist and business leader, Dr. Hans Keirstead is the embodiment of evidence that those who work hard, dream big, and aspire toward impacting the world really can achieve goals that otherwise seem out of reach.
In our next issue of ABILITY Magazine, Chet Cooper sits down with Dr. Keirstead to discuss his awe-inspiring work in medical research, his experiences as a biotech industry business innovator, and his current run for public office — just when you thought that whole “American Dream” narrative was over — in his adopted home State of California.
Hans Keirstead is Fighting Cancer… and Making People Look Good in the Process
It can be said that innovating in medical research and innovating in business require two separate talents. After all, a business person likely sees the world through a different lens than someone conducting medical research. But Dr. Hans Keirstead, who founded AIVITA Biomedical, seems to see the world through both.
In his interview with ABILITY Magazine, Keirstead explains how his cancer-focused company finds funding through selling, of all things, skin care products. Two wildly different ventures tied together by the common thread of stem cell research.
“Our primary asset is a cancer treatment in which we’re the first in the world to purify cancer stem cells and use them in an immunotherapy for cancer,” Keirstead explains. “With the same underlying technology, we’re the first in the world to take stem cells and make them into pure skin precursors which then secrete every single factor relevant to human skin development.
“We just put that in a bottle,” he continues. “It makes you look good. One hundred percent of the proceeds are used to treat women with ovarian cancer.”
But his for-profit ventures aren’t nearly as exciting as his for-science ones. When Keirstead last sat down with ABILITY in 2007, he was working on developing a promising spinal cord injury treatment. Today, more than a decade later, that work is beginning to pay off with tremendous dividends.
“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.
“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 50% of the dose. They’ve also treated two people with 100% of the dose, and there are anecdotal reports of even better recovery. So I’m extremely excited about that.”
From the Medical Research Arena to the Political Stage
But while his fight against cancer and spinal cord injuries continues forward, there’s a new battle he’s lacing up his gloves for: a political one in California, where Keirstead is making a run for Congress.
And a fight it will be, too. Keirstead is running as a Democrat in a historically conservative area… one of the most famously conservative congressional districts in America, let alone California. California’s 48th Congressional District — colloquially known both locally and in nationwide political circles simply as “Orange County” — has a long history of voting for Republicans.
A Democrat hasn’t won a congressional or senate seat there since the district was rezoned in 1992. Barack Obama narrowly won the district in 2008 by only 0.7 percent of the vote, only to lose the district to Romney in 2012 by nearly 12 points. Clinton managed to eke out a narrow win in 2016 as well, beating Donald Trump by 1.7 points.
But Dr. Keirstead isn’t the sort of person who backs away from a challenge. When asked by ABILITY’s Chet Cooper why he decided to enter politics, Keirstead explains that difficulty is his modus operandi.
“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.
“We don’t have anyone [in Washington] 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 20 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.”
Keirstead goes on to explain that Donald Trump — a politician who gravely insulted a reporter with disabilities on the 2016 campaign trail — helped fuel his decision to run as well.
“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.”
Keirstead’s decision to run was fueled by his belief that the 48th’s incumbent Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, is under-representing his constituents.
“[Residents of Orange County are] 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.”
Read the Full Interview with Hans Keirstead in Our Next Issue of ABILITY Magazine!
How Keirstead might fair in his congressional bid, facing an incumbent popular in his district, is anyone’s guess. But Keirstead first needs to navigate through a wide spread of primary candidates in the district before he can worry about a general election race against Rohrabacher.
If he does manage to eke out a primary win, Keirstead’s run against Dana Rohrabacher will be an uphill one. Rohrabacher has strong support from the Koch Network, even as the Koch brothers are shifting toward supporting some democrats. And in the wake of Citizen’s United — which Rohrabacher supported — money equates to speech in the realm of politics.
But challenges aren’t something Dr. Hans Keirstead lets slow him down. As you’ll learn in our next issue of ABILITY Magazine, Dr. Keirstead is best described as someone who looks at the impossible, shrugs, and rolls up his sleeves.