Sept 11, 2002
By Ben Hirschler, European Pharmaceuticals Correspondent
A British firm pioneering stem cells as a treatment for brain damage said on Wednesday it believed it had cracked a production problem which has delayed development of the technology.
ReNeuron Holdings Plc, Europe's first listed stem cell company, now expects to start human trials in 2004--3 years later than originally hoped.
Plans to treat Parkinson's disease and stroke by injecting foetal stem cells into patients' brains were put on hold last year following the discovery that cell lines became genetically unstable after repeated passage.
Now ReNeuron, which faces competition from rival groups in the United States, has found a way round the problem by licensing rights to a patent from Australia's Amrad Corp covering cell immortalisation.
"We've been struggling for the last year and a half with this stability problem, but I'm optimistic that we are going to crack it now," Chief Executive Martin Edwards told Reuters.
Stem cells hold the promise for treating a range of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries. Their use is controversial, partly because the most promising stem cells are derived from human embryos.
Britain, home to world's first test-tube baby and Dolly the cloned sheep, has positioned itself as a leader in the field, with the world's most relaxed laws on research.
A stem cell "bank" is being funded by the government's Medical Research Council and could be running in a year.
CASH CALL IN 2003
But the setbacks at ReNeuron highlight the technical difficulties surrounding the use of stem cells--whether embryonic, foetal or adult--in regenerative medicine.
It will still be many years before an approved treatment is ready for the market.
That leaves ReNeuron, a spin-off from Britain's Institute of Psychiatry, facing a cash crunch. The group had cash reserves of just 8.8 million pounds ($13.7 million) at the end of March.
"We have enough cash until the end of next calendar year ... we will have to raise money by the middle of next year," Edwards said.
Under the deal with Amrad, ReNeuron will pay a small upfront fee equivalent to "a couple of days' cash burn" and a low single digit royalty on eventual sales, he added.
Shares in the group, which floated on London's Alternative Investment Market in 2000, have fallen sharply since peaking at 224 pence in January 2001, reaching an all-time low of 23p last month. They were unchanged at 26p on Wednesday.
In a bid to fill the gap left by the delay in developing products derived from human foetal material, ReNeuron is also working with mouse cells, initially for the treatment of Huntington's disease.
That work is more advanced and clinical trials could start around the end of 2003, though here, too, the company is courting controversy.
"Although it's a bit unusual to put mouse cells into human heads, there is technically no reason why not," Edwards said.
© 2002 Reuters Ltd