According to GenomeNews, Roche is going to use cardiomyocytes derived from human embryonic stem cells to test potential heart drugs for toxicity. The cells are coming from Cellular Dynamics International, founded by James Thomson, who is famous both for being the first to derive human embryonic stem cells and contributing to the broad patents that many researchers feel restrict their use. (See our commentary)
Lots of experimental drugs fail because they cause problems in heart rhythmns; it’s one reason for that famous estimate that it takes over a billion dollars and ten years to bring a drug to market. Lots of companies are hoping to cash in on using human cells for this kind of drug testing. The hope is that not only will such tests be more accurate than animal studies, they can provide a cheaper and kinder alternative. A group of pharmaceutical companies (AstraZeneca, Roche, Pfizer and others) along with the UK government has formed a consortium to do just this (see our article), and the famous Singapore company has adopted cell screening as a business model, after deciding to put its therapeutic work on hold (See our article).
The situation is muddled in the US, because these cells are being used as research tools, and how stem-cell patents will be enforced on research tools used to show drugs’ safety and efficacy is still up in the air (see our article).