The company Pfizer is funding the creation of a new biotech company in San Diego called EyeCyte, specifically for the development of a new type of adult stem cell therapy that is targeted for eye diseases.
Dr. Martin Friedlander, an ophthalmologist at the Scripps Research Institute, has identified stem cells in the blood and bone marrow that are capable of repairing damaged blood vessels in the eyes of animals. According to Dr. Friedlander, he has already been able to cure mice in his laboratory by using these stem cells, in research which was funded by the National Eye Institute. When he decided to start a new biotech company that would develop and commercialize such a therapy for humans, rather than pursue the ordinary venture capital route he chose to seek funding directly from Pfizer instead. According to Corey Goodman, president of Pfizer’s biotech unit, “Pfizer has put its flag in the ground that there is a future in regenerative medicine. The eye is a very good place to be starting – it is an isolated organ and there is a huge need.” In April of this year, Pfizer had already initiated a new department for regenerative medicine that was focused on the development of stem cells, and now Pfizer’s top scientists are collaborating with Dr. Friedlander and his colleagues. Thus far Pfizer has committed $3 million to launching the new company, with the right of first refusal to buy the company in a few years if it proves to be successful.
In humans, retinal damage if often the result of diseases such as diabetes and age-related macular degeneration, both of which result in the formation of abnormal blood vessels. Diabetic retinopathy is especially common in certain developed countries such as the U.S., but until now it has only been treatable with laser therapy, the purpose of which is to kill the damaged retinal cells. Now stem cells offer the first type of treatment that can actually repair damaged blood vessels and restore proper blood flow. According to Mohammed El-Kalay, a chief executive at EyeCyte, their first human trials are expected to begin in approximately 3 years. This type of stem cell therapy would compete with drugs such as Lucentis, developed by Genentech, which is currently approved for macular degeneration and is also being tested for diabetic eye disease.
EyeCyte’s therapy strictly uses only the adult stem cells known as CD44, which are injected directly into the afflicted eye. With such a therapy, in the future it would be possible for a patient to visit the doctor in the morning, at which time a blood sample would be drawn from which the CD44 adult stem cells would be isolated, and then the patient would return in the afternoon for an injection into the eye of his or her own autologous purified stem cells, which would heal the damaged blood vessels as well as protect against further damage.