Wednesday May 5 12:42 AM ET
By Deena Beasley
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - By acquiring a research company formed by the Scottish institute famous for cloning Dolly the sheep, California biotechnology firm Geron Corp. hopes one day to clone tissue to repair human organs damaged by age or degenerative diseases such as cancer or osteoporosis.
Under a deal it announced Tuesday, Geron, based in California's Silicon Valley, said it acquired Roslin Bio-Med, a company formed by Scotland's Roslin Institute, for 2.1 million shares of Geron stock worth about $27 million at recent prices.
The Roslin Institute became famous around the world in 1996 after creating Dolly, the first cloned mammal.
Rather than cloning animals, Geron said it planned to focus on growing human tissue that will not have the immune system problems seen so often in one-to-one donor transplants.
After several more years of research and development, the company aims to be able to develop genetically identical cells from a patient that could be used to grow new tissue.
The technology could be used to create heart muscle cells for heart- attack patients, for instance, or to treat a range of degenerative diseases, including cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's or even spinal cord injuries, the company said.
But the application of cloned tissue in humans remains "more than a few years out," Geron Chief Executive Ronald Eastman said in an interview.
The deal combines the so-called nuclear transfer technology used in the Roslin Institute's cloning breakthroughs with Geron's work in developing embryonic "stem cells" and extending the lifespan of normal human cells with the enzyme telomerase.
Stem cells are a type of human cell that develop in various ways, unlike other cells, which can only serve one function once they begin developing.
"Stem cells give us the ability to create new cells," Eastman said. "By using telomerase, we can take a normal cell and convert it into one having an infinite capacity to regenerate. By adding the cloning technology used to create Dolly, we can eliminate the threat of rejection."
Telomerase is an enzyme that causes a cell to become "immortal'' by removing normal limits to the number of times it can reproduce. Geron owns or co-owns patents with claims on two distinct molecules that combine to form telomerase.
After a heart attack, for instance, a cell from the patient, such as a skin cell, could be cloned using Roslin's cloning technology. Geron's stem cell and telomerase work could then be used to create a source of new long-living heart muscle cells that would be the genetic equivalent of the patient.
"Individually, human pluripotent stem cells, telomerase expression and nuclear transfer have the potential to significantly improve our ability to treat and even cure many diseases. Together, that potential is enhanced dramatically," said Ian Wilmut, the scientist whose research led to the creation of Dolly.
Wilmut will continue to work at Geron Bio-Med, which will be a British subsidiary of Geron based inside the Roslin Institute. Geron said it planned to invest about $20 million over the next six years in the new subsidiary.
Eastman said Roslin's research into using genetically engineered pigs to grow cells, tissues and organs for transplant in humans also would continue.
The collaboration with Geron will aid this work, he noted, since genetic
engineering in animals is hampered by the time it takes to breed them and
the limited lifespan of the tissue cells.