Start-up bets future on embryonic stem cells

The Associated Press
Friday August 03, 2001

MENLO PARK — The future of Geron Corp. – and of millions of people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and other ailments – could well lie in a nondescript business park, guarded by sophisticated electronics and patent attorneys. 

Dozens of vials of human embryonic stem cells – fuzzy, microscopic balls formed in the first days after conception – are kept alive here in an enzyme soup that helps them multiply. Some scientists believe they can prod these cells to grow into tissues that can replace damaged cells and organs. 

This is long-shot science. It is also fraught with mind-numbing economic and social implications – and has become mired in a contentious debate over whether the federal government should pay for such research. 

Geron’s fortunes are deeply enmeshed in the politics of genetic medicine. 

On Wednesday, the company’s stock dropped by 7.8 percent after the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to criminalize human cloning – even though Geron doesn’t rely on cloned human embryos for its stem cells as do some of its competitors. 

The stock was already trading so low that Geron’s board of directors recently approved a poison pill defense to fend off possible hostile takeover attempts. 

Long-term investors in Geron are apt to be hurt – and drug development delayed – if President Bush orders a permanent ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. 

With or without federal funding, if human embryonic stem cells ever live up to their potential as cures for everything from cancer to brain diseases, Geron is uniquely positioned to dominate the emerging field of regenerative medicine. 

The company owns 62 patents involving an anti-aging enzyme, cloning techniques and related technology for regenerative medicine. The company has also applied for about 40 more patents involving stem cells. 

In addition, Geron pays other stem cell patent holders for exclusive commercial rights, making it the largest financial backer of the research in the United States. 

Geron gets its stem cells from the University of Wisconsin, which extracts them from 4-day-old embryos obtained from fertility clinics. 

The idea is to grow the stem cells into adult cells, which can then be kept ageless and dividing through telomerase, an enzyme that controls cell aging. Geron patented the enzyme six years ago while researching ways to make old cells young again. 

“Where we are going with this is cells in a bottle,” said Thomas Okarma, Geron’s chief executive. “Living cells will be tomorrow’s pharmaceuticals.” 

While Geron researchers work on developing cures, the company’s lawyers and financial executives are busy attempting to corner commercial markets with strategic investments. 

This year, Geron is investing at least $4.7 million with academic researchers studying embryonic stem cells at the University of Wisconsin, Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University and other schools. Next year, Geron plans to spend at least $3.4 million. 

By contrast, the next biggest contributor to stem cell research, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, spent only $1.2 million last year. 

Geron’s investments give it commercial rights to the research. Geron provided nearly all the funds that enabled Wisconsin researcher Jamie Thomson to discover human embryonic stem cells in 1998. 

Wisconsin has since grown generations of stem cells from the same initial embryos, becoming the nation’s largest human embryonic stem cell manufacturer and providing Geron with a constant supply. 

But some researchers have complained of difficulty coaxing Wisconsin stem cells to grow and differentiate into usable tissue. They press for the creation of many more colonies of stem cells. 

And hence the political debate. Abortion opponents argue that it is immoral to harvest the stem cells because doing so requires killing a human embryo. Since 1996, the government has banned all federal funding of research that would harm, damage or destroy human embryos. 

Bush is reviewing the policy. A decision to allow federal funds for stem cell research could prompt substantial new investments. Blocking federal money altogether could severely limit Geron’s potential. 

But if Bush decides on a compromise – allowing money for research involving existing stem cells, but blocking funds for research that would destroy more embryos – Geron could wind up with a near-monopoly over the most promising areas of human embryonic stem cell technology. 

Whatever happens, Geron will still face competition and scientific obstacles. 

Its founder, Michael West, left in 1998 after Geron’s board refused to spin off the company’s stem cell unit. 

Texas oilman Miller Quarles, one of Geron’s initial investors, then sold most of his Geron stock and helped West finance his acquisition of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., which now competes with Geron. 

Advanced Cell wants to personalize medicine through cloning, using a patient’s own cells to repair damage – the technique the House voted to ban. 

Other companies work with adult stem cells, which may be less useful to science but are certainly less problematic politically than the embryonic cells that Geron uses. 

The National Institutes of Health last year contributed $147 million to human adult stem cell research by both private and government labs, and it expects to top that figure this year. 

It will take years for stem cells to pay off – if ever. 

Immune rejection remains a key stumbling block. Our bodies reject foreign cells. Heart transplant recipients, for instance, require anti-rejection drugs that have serious side effects and often don’t work at all. 

Until researchers find a solution, regenerative medicine remains theoretical and keeps Geron’s future speculative. All of that makes investors impatient – to say nothing of the sick and aging. 

“I’m 86 years old and I don’t have much time left,” Quarles said. “They better find something pretty damn quick.”