Sunday July 29 06:52 PM EDT
"Maryland Biotech Companies Target Stem Cells"
Maryland Biotech Companies Target Stem Cells
Matthew Garr was 3 years old when he developed a large brain tumor.
The growth was benign and removed by surgery nine years ago. But Matthew's long and difficult rehabilitation convinced his father, Richard - a lawyer by training, that there had to be new ways to treat the brain.
"That's how I got interested in stem cell research. It was a year-and-a-half later that I met Karl."
As in Karl Johe, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (news - web sites) who developed a way to grow cells in a laboratory that turn into neurons, the cells making up the brain and spinal cord, when injected into the body.
The two created NeuralStem Biopharmaceuticals, a College Park biotech firm that is trying to use those lab-grown cells - known as stem cells - to treat crippling diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.
While the public debates the ethical issues interwoven with federal funding of stem cell research, NeuralStem and at least two other Maryland biot! ec! h companies are developing a variety of different stem cell treatments.
All three likely will avoid any significant controversy - none use stem cells taken from human embryos and none receive federal funding.
Stem cell companies also will benefit from the public realization of the potentially lifesaving results of research, said Arthur Mandell, CEO of the Rockville-based Stemron.
"This is a science and technology that is becoming widely accepted," he said. "Everybody understands if we can get past these hurdles, this science can work."
Stem cells are essentially blank slates, cells that have yet to change into specialized tissues that make the body's different organs and components.
Scientists believe the cells can be reproduced in the lab and then transplanted into the body, where they could grow into bone, skin and other body tissues.
The medical promise of stem cells is enormous. Patients with heart disease could have stem cells implanted to repair their faili! ng! hearts. Transplanted pancreas cells could free diabetes sufferers from daily insulin injections.
Stem cells come from a variety of sources. Some researchers believe that adult cells taken from bone marrow and fat, for example, can help regenerate tissue. NeuralStem, for example, uses neurons taken from aborted fetuses as their source of stem cells.
But the most versatile cells are found in human embryos, taken from the handful of cells that form days after an egg is fertilized.
Embryonic stem cell research is criticized by religious organizations and anti-abortion activists as the immoral destruction of embryos. President Bush (news - web sites) is considering whether to ban federal funding to scientists working with embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stem cell opponents believe that adult stem cells, which can be isolated without the death of an embryo, should be studied instead.
Whatever decision the president makes, stem cell research not involving embryos should not be affected, sa! id! Michael Werner, biotechnology counsel for the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization.
"I expect both the president and Congress to say that adult stem cell research should be funded," he said.
That would be a boon to Baltimore-based Osiris Therapeutics.
The company uses stem cells found in adult bone marrow to generate muscle, fat, bone and cartilage cells, among others.
Adult stem cells can be produced cheaply, quickly and are much less likely to be rejected by the body's immune system than embryonic cells, said Diana Buyaner, an Osiris market analyst.
It also is easier for scientists to control adult stem cells, which only can grow into a limited number of tissues. Embryonic stem cells can turn into almost any tissue in the body, meaning they might grow out of control if injected into the body.
"We don't need to drive adult stem cells in a particular direction," Buyaner said. "We just put the cells back into whatever place that needs to be repair! ed! ."
Osiris has two stem cell treatments in human clinical trials, including one designed to regenerate bone marrow and blood cells in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants.
That makes it the only biotech firm nationwide to test stem cells in the clinic, Buyaner said.
Stemron's Mandell said his company plans to use early stage pluripotent cells, or stem cells that can create almost any tissue in the human body.
The former Human Genome Sciences executive isn't ready to give any details about the science behind his 6-month-old Rockville company - which has just five employees - but said the stem cells his company works with are not embryonic.
And despite the public dispute over federal funding, Mandell said private money is flowing into the field. The company has secured $3.5 million in seed money and Mandell said he's a month away from receiving more funds.
"Venture capital for a company like this is not very problematic. Investors are ! v! ery interested in stem cell research," he said.
While stem cells have great medical promise, they are still largely unproven in humans. But NeuralStem's experiments with stem cells in laboratory animals have been successful in growing new neurons, Garr said.
"What we don't know is that this works," he said. "We can cure as many rats as we want, but once we get it into people, we still don't know."
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