Tools & Therapeutics - How the Industry is Lining Up Stem Cells – A Sector Overview from Bio-Europe Spring 2013, Barcelona

It seems odd to debate the merits of scientific progress and value when people are dying and illness remains the single biggest impediment to human advancement. Well that’s just the reason for Biotech – right? To investigate the possibility of new approaches to treating human suffering and to trial them so they are fit for acquisition and release – or at least that’s what the dogma is supposed to suggest. However, as I learned last week in Barcelona all is not clear with the establishment and the dawn of a new era may be beginning to take shape….

What is it that is driving this movement? Well, like all good stories it revolves around plot, and the storyline may well be all about action. It’s happening all around us… The business of health is moving towards a sustainable path, ever so slightly, not so much that you or I can see it – but it’s there, inching its way to a new paradigm. It’s the gradual understanding that our societies can’t manage the onslaught of the sick and elderly of an ever increasing population without adapting and innovating our way out - like we have always done. We’re good at it, in most senses, but it does take time… History has proven that, at least in some ways – so there’s hope – or at least one would like to think so…

One theme at EBD Group’s annual Bio-Europe Spring conference this year was the emerging field of Stem Cell Technology and its application and relevance to today’s Pharma structure. The promise of a revolution over 15 years in the making since ES cells were first discovered has largely fallen on deft ears in the power corridors of Pharma. However, patients still maintain hope for medicines that offer relief, as well as potential restorative and curative benefits without toxicity. The combination of economic incentive, innovation and patient advocacy has thickened the plot – can the real action be that far away now?

I sat in on many related Pharma Positioning speaches, Panel Session Talks and Corporate Presentations and my takeaway was cautious acknowledgement of a Regenerative Medicine revolution. From J&J’s announcement of their London Innovation Center, CIRM’s $30m iPS cell bank initiative and its` European and Japanese counterparts, to Baxter, Teva and Shire’s intent to secure leading positions in the emerging field. Even the handful of top names’ desire to further harness the power of cell technology, were all evident on the scene. What was lacking was a deal announcement in the space to signal the segue.

iPS cells have done what hES couldn’t in less than half the time – entered the protected walls of the establishment. From what the speakers described, that was a hard fought battle in itself, yet four years and a Nobel later the sector has a home within those castles. Cell Therapeutics – the bedside “Apple” to the lab juiced “Orange,” as CIRM described it, is still a bit player, but that may be changing as companies in the space are advancing their proof data and that is what many noted will set the action off and usher in new stars.

Which therapeutic companies are positioned to drive the field? – for it is that progress and those breakthrough programs that were viewed as needed, along with Pharma`s subsequent buy-in. These companies will be the catalysts to the new business dynamic that has not been seen in the Industry since the early days of monoclonal antibodies a generation ago.

Enter two US Stem Cell companies that participated in the conference and were notably featured on related technology Panel Sessions – ImmunoCellular Therapeutics (IMUC) and Advanced Cell Technology (ACTC) – with Novartis and Roche on their Session Panels respectively. Both have great programs and potentially breakthrough commercial potential. One is the natural follow-up to Dendreon’s pioneering science in the cancer space, IMUC, and the other is the leading ES and iPS player, with a curative Eye therapy reaching its inflection point and a multiple cell source derived Platelet trial lining up, ACTC.

I had the distinct pleasure to meet with ACTC’s CEO Gary Rabin and Matt Vincent, the company’s Business Development Director on the final day of the conference. We chatted for an hour and a half on a wide range of topics of interest to current and future shareholders (report here). The rain outside the hotel lobby on the day was heavy and soothing, as was the conversation. To be on the brink of solving such a devastating disease as age related blindness at a time when the ranks of the elderly are swelling and the social burden of maintenance is so high, is worth waiting a few months for until the final action packed Act…

Word of mouth is a powerful tool – let’s hope no one has lost the plot along the way…