By Michael D. West, CEO of BioTime, Inc. (NYSE Mkt: BTX)
Rarely, we have the privilege of viewing a revolution in the making. In my lifetime, I have seen this in the miniaturization and widespread use of computer technology. In a few short decades, computers have changed everything, from the way we conduct commerce, the way we navigate the highways, to the way we choose and listen to music. In biotechnology (a field in which I spend my time), we saw a similar revolution in the late 1970s that changed medicine in a very profound manner. It was the birth of what is called, “recombinant DNA technology”. This discovery allowed researchers for the first time to manufacture previously rare and valuable proteins on an industrial scale. Now life-saving proteins such as insulin and growth hormone could be scaled up for millions of patients simply and at an affordable cost. It is frankly hard to imagine current medical research without recombinant DNA.
In the mid 1990s, I had the privilege of participating in another revolution, one that I think has the potential to be more impactful than even recombinant DNA. In the course of human aging, numerous tissues in the body wear out and are lost or become dysfunctional. As a result, late in life we all face the prospect of long-lasting (chronic) age-related degenerative diseases that rob us of quality of life. The list of such diseases is, of course, long, but common examples are Parkinson’s disease where the loss of certain brain cells lead to years of disability; osteoarthritis, where the loss of cartilage in the joints can cause a great deal of pain and disability; heart failure, where the loss of heart muscle after a heart attack can reduce activity and lead to early death; macular degeneration a leading cause of blindness, and so on. These chronic conditions account for some 80% of health care costs largely because current medicines are not capable of simply making new replacement cells for these tissues in the body. That is where the stem cell revolution comes in.
The isolation of a special type of cells called “pluripotent (all-powerful) stem cells” in the late 1990s made it feasible for the first time in the history of medicine to manufacture on an industrial scale all of the cells types of the human body, similar to the way recombinant DNA allowed the manufacture of all proteins. Therefore, it is now possible, and products are now in clinical trials, where valuable cells can be manufactured to replace and repair tissues afflicted with degenerative disease, such as those I mentioned above, and of course, many others.
What does the revolution mean? There has certainly been a lot of hype circulated relating to the stem cell revolution. But, the transplantation of cells and tissues to treat disease is a well-established paradigm. The limitation in the past has largely been one of a lack of supply. With such an abundant new source of cellular building blocks, I and many other researchers in the field believe that the future is bright for regenerative medicine. Will we eventually be able to replace cells in our bodies with fresh young cells to keep us living longer and healthier? Probably. But when that happens entirely depends on how many scientists can be marshaled into the cause. So far, the federal government in the U.S. has assumed that new technologies will merely add to the burgeoning health care budget. I find that shortsighted. Chronic degenerative diseases are expensive because they are chronic. If tissues can be repaired, the cost of treatment would, in my opinion, dwarf that of the current ineffective therapies. If government funding is not coming to the rescue, don’t worry. Biotechnology companies will come to the rescue. Where there is human need, business will flourish.
Editor's Note: Dr. West is the Chief Executive Officer of BioTime, Inc. (NYSE-MKT: BTX) and its subsidiaries OrthoCyte Corporation and ReCyte Therapeutics. BioTime’s subsidiaries are focused on developing an array of research and therapeutic products using human embryonic stem cell technology. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor College of Medicine in 1989 concentrating on the biology of cellular aging. He has focused his academic and business career on the application of developmental biology to the age-related degenerative disease. He was the Founder of Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, California (Nasdaq: GERN) and from 1990 to 1998 he was a Director, and Vice President, where he initiated and managed programs in telomerase diagnostics, oligonucleotide-based telomerase inhibition as anti-tumor therapy, and the cloning and use of telomerase in telomerase-mediated therapy wherein telomerase is utilized to immortalize human cells. From 1995 to 1998 he organized and managed the research collaboration between Geron and its academic collaborators James Thomson and John Gearhart that led to the first isolation of human embryonic stem and human embryonic germ cells. From 1998 to 2005 he was Chief Executive Officer and from 2005-2007 President and Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. (OTC: ACTC) where he managed programs in animal cloning, human somatic cell nuclear transfer, retinal pigment epithelial cell differentiation and product development, and PureStem, a technology for the multiplex derivation and characterization of clonal human embryonic progenitor cell lines.
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