Thursday, June 10, 2004
Stem cell research may one day help a variety of illnesses and injuries, including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease.
But until new cell lines are produced, products may never come to the market, and businesses are being stymied by current federal policy, experts attending the BIO 2004 conference here said Wednesday.
In August 2001, President Bush enacted a policy that limited stem cell research to the embryonic stem cell lines in place as of that date. Of the 78 stem cell lines in the federal registry, only 19 have been found to be usable.
The National Institutes of Health has granted that it is still unclear what can be accomplished with those lines. Researchers claim that the currently existing lines are not suitable for clinical trials and that the productions of new lines is essential. But since Bush's policy does not allow federal funding for companies producing such lines, businesses are relying on the private sector.
Back in March, 17 new stem cell lines were created by scientists funded by Harvard University, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Only two U.S. companies currently have embryonic stem cells that they are using for research, said Lutz Giebel, a partner with Schroder Ventures Life Sciences, a venture capital firm that invests in life science companies, with an office in Foster City.
One such company is Geron Corp., based in Menlo Park. The other is San Diego-based CyThera Inc.
The federal policy affects research
on all levels, especially in academia, Giebel said during a break at the biotechnology conference, which concluded Wednesday.
"If there was good federal funding, there would be 20,000 professors doing stem cell research," he said.
Since companies cannot get federal funds -- such as Small Business Innovation Research grants -- to create new stem lines, their ability to find venture capital funding is limited, Giebel said.
One company that experiences difficulties with the federal policy is Sangamo, a publicly traded Richmond-based company that makes gene regulation technology, which is applied to numerous areas of research, including stem cell.
Edward Lanphier, chief executive officer of the company, said that the stem cell issue is clearly a political one and not a scientific one.
"I have real concern that these kinds of funding decisions are ultimately being made based upon political bias and not on careful and independent, critical scientific decisions," he said.
With most American universities choosing not to do stem cell research because it is too risky, the research is going offshore, which has big ramifications, Lanphier and others said.
"The intellectual property, the patents that are getting generated, the commercial infrastructure, the investment, the jobs -- are going to be where the discoveries are going to be made," he said.
The lack of funding in academia forces U.S. companies to do more stem cell research in-house than their international peers. As research slows down, so does the speed of products moving into clinical trials. Stem cell research has yet to produce a successful product on the market, Giebel said.
Another major problem venture capitalists see is that private stem cell
companies have no clear exit paths, because the public markets have not
looked favorably on such companies.
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