In a further sign of the increasing investment opportunities that are springing up throughout the stem cell industry, big pharma has now decided to capitalize upon stem cell research. According to Pfizer spokeswoman Ruth McKernan, the world’s largest drugmaker has allocated a budget of $100 million to be directed over the next five years toward developing stem cell products that will specifically target the treatment of diseases that are typically associated with aging, such as heart disease, diabetes, vision loss and hearing loss, among other ailments. While such stem cell research and development is already underway in smaller companies such as Geron and Novocell, this marks the first time that a major pharmaceutical organization has entered the field. Although its headquarters are in New York, Pfizer is dedicating its laboratories in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Cambridge, England to the development of drugs that will stimulate adult stem cells that already exist in the human body to heal injury and disease. According to Corey Goodman, president of Pfizer’s Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center, the U.S. lab will focus on heart disease, cancer and diabetes, while the UK lab will research therapies for vision and hearing. Pfizer is planning to hire 70 new scientists by the end of 2009 to staff laboratories at the two locations. Although embryonic stem cells will constitute part of the research, the primary emphasis will be on stimulating the body’s own adult stem cells for self-repair, thereby slowing or possibly even reversing the aging process.
According to Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the state agency that funds stem cell research in California, “The major pharma companies are moving into the field and taking a very strong position. We feel they’re like big ships coming together with us. It’s starting to be an armada.”
Biotech companies have not been entirely immune to the recent global financial crisis, with Pfizer’s stock losing 28% this past year, most recently falling 45 cents, or 2.7%, in one day, to $16.28 where it settled at 4:15 p.m. yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Nevertheless, the decision to join the stem cell bandwagon offers Pfizer greater protection from economic vicissitudes than the company might otherwise enjoy.
Embryonic stem cells are believed to be capable, at least theoretically, of differentiating into all 210 cell types of the human body, although this has never actually been demonstrated. By contrast, each type of adult stem cell is more limited in its “potency”, but taken altogether, all the various types of adult stem cells can also differentiate into all 210 cell types of the human body. Additionally, adult stem cells have thus far proven to be safer and more effective than embryonic stem cells, since embryonic stem cells still remain extremely problematic in the laboratory and consequently have never advanced to the clinical stage. Purely as an area of scientific interest, however, if not yet as a candidate for clinical therapy, embryonic stem cells are attracting the curiosity of more and more pharmaceutical companies, who also recognize the more immediate benefits of adult stem cell therapies, and who are therefore allocating research funding to both fields. Indeed, other major drugmakers besides Pfizer are also taking an increasingly active interest in both types of stem cell research and technology. The Swiss pharmaceutical companies Novartis AG and Roch Holding AG, for example, as well as Johnson & Johnson of the United States, and the London-based company GlaxoSmithKline, which is the world’s second largest pharmaceutical company, second only to Pfizer, have all initiated new investments in or partnerships with other biotech companies that are developing stem cell therapies. In 2007 Novartis and Roche helped fund the Spanish company Cellerix in the use of adult stem cells from subcutaneous fat for the treatment of patients with rare skin disorders, while in July of this year Glaxo announced a four-year, $25 million stem cell project with Harvard University. Similarly, J&J’s venture capital arm took an equity interest in the U.S. company Tengion, which is growing various organs such as bladders from adult stem cells in the laboratory, and J&J also led a $25 million round of funding for Novocell, which is involved in researching possible diabetes therapies from embryonic stem cells. According to Reinhard Ambros, executive director of the Novartis Venture Fund which invests in corporations involved in the life sciences, “There will be more companies coming with good technologies that will raise more interest from venture capital people.” However, Pfizer is the first big pharma company to dedicate an entire program exclusively to stem cell research, as pointed out by John McNeish, the director of Pfizer’s Massachusetts division. According to Corey Goodman, in order to enter the stem cell field, Pfizer first underwent a major change in corporate policy which was subjected to detailed reassessment and authorization by CEO Jeffrey Kindler.
Pfizer’s approach to their new stem cell research project is based in large part upon the work of Dr. Sheng Ding of the Scripps Research Institute in California, who explains that, “People might not know that stem cells are everywhere in the body and play a role in disease. Awakening stem cells already present in the body might be very attractive for therapeutic intervention to achieve healing and repair.” In 2007, Dr. Ding cofounded the San Diego-based company Fate Therapeutics, which is collaborating with Pfizer in developing novel pharmaceutical agents that can activate and mobilize endogenous dormant adult stem cells already residing in the hearts and other organs of people, so that such stem cells will be triggered to repair tissue that is damaged by injury or disease. According to Dr. McNeish, “Most people and scientists do believe that cells will be medicines in the near future.” Dr. Brock Reeve, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, adds, “Originally, pharma stayed away because of the timeline, knowing that [embryonic] stem cell-based therapies will be years down the road. Where things have changed in the last year is that we can now create cells of interest in particular diseases,” referring specifically to the newly developed laboratory technologies that have made the news headlines over the past year, such as the technique pioneered by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in which iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells are created by reprogramming ordinary adult, non-stem cell, somatic cells to behave with a pluripotency seemingly equivalent to that of embryonic stem cells.
As more and more venture capital funding and for-profit companies enter the stem cell field, thereby adding to the diversification and competition of marketable products, stem cells are no longer limited to the realm of university laboratories and academia, but instead represent a growing industrial sector of the world’s stock markets.