LONDON (Reuters Health) Feb 23 - PPL Therapeutics, the firm that cloned "Dolly" the sheep, revealed on Friday it had succeeded in turning a cow's skin cell into a heart cell, in a breakthrough that could curtail controversial research on human embryos.
News of the findings, which may help scientists develop treatments for diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, sent shares in the small, Scottish firm over 6% higher in London to 169-3/4 pence.
"This is a big step forward," said Erling Refsum, a biotechnology analyst at Nomura Securities. "These were the first people to clone an animal, the first to change the genetic structure of a cloned animal. Now they are the first to change one cell into another and get around the real problem, which is the difficulty of sourcing stem cells."
Up to now, scientists have relied on the use embryonic stem cells in their hunt for a treatment for degenerative diseases. Researchers have been using stem cells in efforts to develop neural, blood and cardiac cells, thereby creating a ready supply of replacement tissue.
But the research and the "harvesting" of stem cells from embryos has been condemned by religious and "pro-life" groups. The Pope has spoken out about the dangers of pushing the boundaries of medical research too far and called human embryo cloning "morally unacceptable".
PPL said what was different and more ethically acceptable about its method, pioneered by scientists at its US unit PPL Therapeutics Inc, was that it avoided the need for stem cells. PPL has managed to turn a cow's skin cells into stem cells, and then grow them into heart cells.
"The results of this experiment gives us confidence that the method we are developing as a source of stem cells is working, and I believe it will be equally applicable to humans," PPL Managing Director Dr. Ron James said. He was due to announce the trial results formally at a meeting of the British Fertility Society later on Friday, but will not reveal full details for commercial reasons.
Analysts said that with a market cap of around 85 million pounds ($123 million), PPL was undervalued and could become a takeover target. Several US firms, among them Genzyme General Corp., were possible predators, they added.
"The market has not
appreciated what the company is doing, but the opposition does," one analyst
2000 Reuters Ltd.