More MS news articles for Aug 2001

The Daily Interview: The Market Opportunities for Stem Cell Research

8/6/01 6:32 AM ET
By Lee Barney
Staff Reporter

The debate over whether the federal government should help fund stem cell research has scientists and pro-life groups in a fierce struggle. Little has been said, meanwhile, about the potential markets that stem cell medical procedures could spawn.

Rochelle Seide, a partner and biotechnology patent attorney with the law firm of Baker & Botts in New York City, describes what stem cells are and what potential uses they have. Seide also tells Daily Interview why the big pharmaceutical companies have yet to become actively involved in stem cell research, and why the major players continue to be small biotechnology companies.

TSC: What are the various benefits of stem cells? There have been reports that they could lead to cures for a wide variety of diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, liver failure, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis.

Seide: They haven't been shown to do anything yet. This is only what's been postulated as their potential. We don't have [pill] treatments for diabetes. We haven't found the magic pill for a lot of treatments, certainly Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or anything else. These devastating diseases cost the country millions and billions of dollars. The potential of regenerative medicine is enormous.

TSC: What is a stem cell?

Seide: Stem cells are basic cells from which other cells are derived. There are different kinds of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells have caused the debate that's been raging the past couple of months. These are derived from early stage embryos, before the embryo's cells begin to divide, and may number only about 100 cells. Those kinds of stem cells are what's known as totipotent, meaning they can become any other kind of cells.

Other kinds of stem cells come from later in development, from sources where cells are replenishing themselves, such as fetal stem cells, bone marrow stem cells, blood stem cells or liver stem cells. These have the ability to become other things but they are not totipotent. They are what's known as pluripotent.

TSC: Since they can become any other kind of cell, are embryonic stem cells the most desirable to scientists?

Seide: Although embryonic stem cells are, in a sense, a blank slate, they can't serve every use. Most people think that because embryonic stem cells can differentiate into a wide variety of tissue that they may be the most beneficial. But bone marrow stem cells, for instance, are used to treat cancer patients. So, I think all of the stem cell research should go forward. All of these different types of stem cells have uses.

TSC: Are any labs now cloning stem cells?

Seide: A couple of companies, including the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine, have talked about cloning embryos from which they could derive stem cells for therapeutic purposes, not for reproduction.

I don't totally agree with doing therapeutic cloning to create stem cells, but I believe that stem cell research should go forward. There are a lot of embryos that were created for in vitro fertilization and nothing's going to be done with them. They're sitting frozen in canisters, and in most cases these embryos are going to be discarded.

TSC: Why has stem cell research become such a hot topic now?

Seide: The Clinton administration was going to allow [the] National Institutes of Health to fund research on stem cells derived from embryos to be discarded. Clinton had asked The National Bioethics Advisory Commission to investigate the ethics of such research, and they had concluded that human stem cell research is ethical. NIH had set a deadline of March or April for researchers to submit proposals. This deadline, along with the current administration, triggered this raging debate. Although there are a number of people in Congress right now who are pro-life and who are pro stem cell research, a lot of other people will not separate this from the abortion issue.

TSC: How far advanced is stem cell research at this point and how much would you estimate has been invested in this research so far?

Seide: It's not that far advanced. Dr. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin removed the first human stem cell from an embryo only a few years ago, in 1997. Now much of the research is taking place abroad. Japan has just passed regulations to go forward with cloning. And so has Europe. If the United States continues to be embroiled in this debate, it will be left behind. This research will take place in the rest of the world.

There are a few U.S. companies involved in this right now, the two most notable of which are Geron (GERN:Nasdaq - news - commentary) and Advanced Tissue Sciences (ATIS:Nasdaq - news - commentary). All of the important research is taking place in the private sector. I would guess a couple of hundred million has been invested, but not yet billions. This research is in its embryonic stage.

TSC: How big could this market potentially become and when might we see results?

Seide: It could be huge. Biotechnology has tremendous potential, and scientists are already reporting results in the laboratory. The potential benefits of stem cell research are tremendously exciting. But think of how long it takes for a drug to get to market. It takes 10, 12 years for a single drug to get to market. Prozac took 10 years to come to market.

TSC: Are any of the big pharmaceutical companies involved in stem cell research right now, and if not, why?

Seide: No. They may be funding research, but none of them are involved directly. Big pharmaceuticals are interested in making small molecule [products]. They want product that they can sell in pill form in large quantity. Stem cell research for a patient with diabetes might be a one-shot deal. It's a different philosophy. The big pharmaceuticals are interested in biotechnology but because it's such a research-intensive process, at this point, they are only willing to license the biotechnology being developed at smaller companies.

TSC: Do you believe that this research would be greatly advanced if the government did decide to fund it?

Seide: If NIH or other federal agencies could provide the funding, it would help significantly because there would be more places doing the research, there would be more openness and there would be some oversight, which we don't have now. But it's a double-edged sword. If you get public funding, then the government will be able to regulate this.