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Former Geron execs bid for abandoned stem cell program

Two former heads of Geron are making a bid for the stem-cell program that the company pioneered and then abandoned.

In an unusual move, the two sent an open letter to the company’s shareholders asking them to contact the company’s board of directors to support a proposal in which Geron would transfer assets to a subsidiary of BioTime, which is run by Michael West, who founded Geron in 1990.

In September, Tom Okarma, who had led Geron from 1999 to 2011, joined forces with West, becoming the CEO of BioTime Acquisition Company, which was to “acquire assets and businesses in the fields of stem cells and regenerative medicine.”

At Geron, Okarma had devoted himself to getting embryonic stem cells to the clinic. He navigated a difficult road marred with starts and stops, including a 21,000-page submission to the FDA in 2008, special FDA sessions to discuss risks of stem-cell-derived therapies and the first dose in October 2010. (See Rough ride for embryonic stem cell trials). He left the company in 2011, and a few months later the company’s new leadership announced that it was abandoning its stem cell program to focus on cancer therapeutics. (See Stem-cell pioneer bows out)

Though no safety issues were observed in the trial for spinal cord injury, Geron’s new leadership said the time,risk, and investment needed to produce a revenue-generating project were too great.  (And some in the field had expressed doubt that the introduced cells could repair the kind of cell damage seen in spinal cord injury.)  Advanced Cell Technologies is now the only company in clinical trials with a product derived from embryonic stem cells, though it has faced its own controversy and challenges. (See Nature’s Stem cell research: Never say die)

West and Okarma overlapped for only a few weeks before West left to lead Advanced Cell Technologies. Subsequently, the men were competitors, with both companies racing to bring a product derived from embryonic stem cells to the clinic. (Geron for spinal cord injury; ACT for blindness-causing diseases.) When Geron pulled out of the field, both men felt the loss, West says.

“Our goal was to rebuild the foundations of the industry,” says West. “We felt very deeply that this was a platform technology that medicine had never had before.”

If a deal goes through, West believes that the spinal cord program could receive support from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which has awarded grant funds to BioTime and had loaned Geron money to go forward with clinical trials. (The loan was repaid with interest when the company abandoned the trial.)

See further analysis on the California Stem Cell Report and from the Scimitar Equity blog.

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