A company that pioneered embryonic-stem-cell research is walking out on the field it helped to create. Geron, based in Menlo Park, California, announced yesterday that it would kill off its stem-cell programme — and its landmark clinical trial of a treatment for spinal-cord injuries — so that it can focus on cancer therapies.
For supporters of the technology, Geron’s exit is a blow. “This is very unfortunate for the field,” says Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Santa Monica, California, the only other embryonic-stem-cell company with regulatory approval to conduct clinical trials in the United States. “It is a big deal. It certainly puts a lot of pressure on us to deliver now.”
Geron was the first company to gain approval from US regulators to conduct a clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells. The company has treated four patients with spinal-cord injuries since launching the trial in 2010 and has reported that the treatments seem to be safe, although they have not yielded any improvement in spinal-cord function. The trial was designed only to test safety, however, and Geron has made it clear from the start that the company did not expect the treatment regimen — including the number of cells injected — to be sufficient to relieve paralysis in the eight patients it ultimately aimed to treat in its first trial.
It has not been easy to be first. It took Geron years and an infamous 21,000-page application to the US Food and Drug Administration to get permission to conduct the trial. The company’s new chief executive, John Scarlett, said the decision to axe the programme would free up needed financial resources without forcing the company to raise more money. “This would not be possible if we continue to fund the stem cell program at the current levels,” he wrote in a statement. The decision will also allow the company to trim 38% of its workforce.
In May, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), a stem-cell research funding agency supported by state taxpayers, awarded Geron a US$25-million loan to support the spinal-cord injury trial. In a statement, CIRM announced that Geron has today repaid the $6.42 million it had already received, with interest.
Geron says that it is now looking for partners to pick up its stem cell assets.