The Niche

Companies have company at stem cell conference

I didn’t expect to find so much industry here, at this year’s World Stem Cell Summitt in Madison, Wisconsin. The companies are diverse, from giant New York–based Pfizer to teeny, tiny start-ups, and so are their goals. Pfizer is creating a new division of regenerative medicine, and the new head, John McNeish, spoke of plans to use stem cells to identify new drug targets and to screen drugs for toxicity and efficacy. They’ve already run over a million compounds through assays that used stem cells (I think mouse embryonic stem cells).

But he’s also excited about harvesting the therapeutic potential of stem cells themselves. It’s not cell transplants he’s thinking of, though, so much as finding small molecules (the type that can be made into pills) that activate stem cells within the body. Perhaps the tissue-homing skills of certain stem cells could even be used as drug-delivery devices.

Of course, Pfizer is not alone. McNeish had a lengthy list of other public announcements to establish pharma’s interest in stem cells. At the International Society for Stem Cell Research meeting in June, I met plenty of industry scientists hoping to pick up bench tricks for using stem cells, mainly as a way to test small molecules.

For the most part, the smaller companies here are selling services tocharacterize or grow stem cells. Companies might scale an established line of cells up under rigorously controlled conditions or provide reagents to make growing stem cells more convenient. At a panel, Jonathan Gertler, a boutique investment banker from Leerink Swann, in Boston, Massachusetts, predicted an expanding market for these kinds of services: as less experienced people enter the field, both the market and need for these tools will grow. He estimated that companies that are potentially commercially viable already number almost 100; consolidation is coming, he said.

As the possibilities for making money edge nearer, the real intellectual property fights will begin. And right now the patent situation is very uncertain, said Owen Hughes, who thinks about intellectual property and regulatory issues for Pfizer. Taxpayer-funded reach-through policies (I believe this was code for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine), he says, only add to the uncertainty.

Greg Simon of the think tank FasterCures, based in Washington, DC, said fiefdoms would hurt science. “We can’t have every state build an infrastructure for intellectual property and then build a castle around it.” He also called for academics’ work with industry to be disclosed, not so much for concerns over conflict of interest, but because that information could be useful for everyone in the space. (There are loads of people who would like to know what reasons the FDA gave for halting Geron’s clinical trial; that way they might be able to better plan out the tests they need to do).

If anyone has ideas for sharing data in their own self-interest for stem cells, please let me know.

Related stories

See Embryonic stem cell trial put on hold

See Thickets and gaps blocking stem cell research

Pfizer dips a toe into cell therapy

Here are all three blogs from the conference

Companies have company

Stem cell trials balancing hope and harm

Stem cell therapies, ready for success?

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