Stem cell therapies may one day provide cures for spinal chord injuries, heart damage and other serious medical conditions. For years, the biotech company Geron led the way in private research in this field. But the California-based company says it will shut down its stem cell division to focus on cancer therapies. Officials at Geron call the decision a calculated business move.
The announcement by Menlo-park based Geron Corporation surprised and disappointed many in California's burgeoning stem cell field. Among them, officials at the state agency that financially supported the Geron's research into an embryonic stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries.
We were definitely not expecting it obviously, very disappointed for the millions of people living with spinal cord injuries who look to the Geron trials as a sign of hope for future therapy," says Jonathan Thomas. He is director of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, created in 2004 when voters approved Proposition 71. The state agency is charged with investing three billion public dollars for stem cell research in California at universities and at private firms like Geron. Thomas says Geron's decision to close its stem cell division and then pay back the state agency with interest was a business choice. Thomas says, "This was not at all a commentary on the science or viability of the research going on. The science I think everyone is very firmly behind but economics are economics and biotech companies or any other companies will change their focus from time to time. That’s exactly what happened here."
The pressure on private biotech companies is high. Many investors won't wait a decade or more for return on their money. But Geron's decision – although business-related – is a symbolic blow for stem cell research. It helped finance Wisconsin researchers who were the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1998. Geron began testing stem cell therapies last year after a decade of research. But with federal approval of any of its treatments likely to take another decade and with research costing the company upwards of 25 million dollars a year, Geron officials say they’ll focus instead on two experimental cancer drugs that are farther along in testing.
That news didn't surprise Marcy Darnovsky, "I think it was really an example of hype and exaggeration catching up with the whole stem cell field." Darnovsky is associate executive director at the Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley-based group critical of anyone who promises quick stem cell cures. "Unfortunately, it's a field that has really been distorted for a long time by scientists and boosters who have gotten carried away I think on the one hand with what one stem cell supporter called irrational exuberance and on the other hand really unfortunate political polarization that developed."
Jonathan Thomas with the Center For Regenerative Medicine disagrees that hyperbole is fueling stem cell research. He points to several breakthrough studies in cardiac stem cell therapy – including a study in which University of Louisville scientists used stem cells to repair the hearts of cardiac patients. That research appeared in the journal The Lancet a day before Geron said it was leaving the field. Thomas says, "Any sort of research like this is going to have ups and downs. You’re going to have in any given time a number of steps forward number of steps back."
Thomas says Geron's work was pioneering. It provided a foundation for stem cell studies now mostly funded by government and academia; studies that Thomas contends will someday help relieve human suffering worldwide.