Innovate or Die, Part II

There’s a lineage of cells, starting with the sperm and the egg, that make a human being… that make more sperm and eggs… and that potentially can make more human beings.

And if you’re a lucky enough cell to be in that lineage, it’s called the germ line. They don’t age.

You and I are made from such cells, of course.

But if you think about it, if you connected the dots back in time, all of us are born from a lineage of cells that have been proliferating for billions of years… since the dawn of life on Earth.

The cells that branch off and make us — the somatic cell lineages that are the skin, the bone, the brains, what we normally think of as a human being — have a clock of aging. And the genetics are such that you’re not going to live forever, but the germ line can.

We figured if we could go primitive enough into these cells, we could tap into that immortal lineage — and indeed, embryonic stem cells do not age, and everything you make from them are young cells with — as we say — long telomeres.

That’s a big deal.

OK, so the stem cell thing was very controversial. Many of you may remember the debates in the United States, and President Bush addressing the country about all this.

These were embryonic stem cells. They came from these little clusters of cells that were made when a sperm fertilized an egg, but were being thrown away…

Then, of course, the emphasis by many people was put on adult stem cells. They said, “Well, there are cells in you and me.” There are adults that can branch out and make different kinds of cells.

The problem is they make only a few cell types. There’s a stem cell in your bone marrow that can make blood cells. That’s a blood stem cell. Technically, it branches out and makes B-cells and T-cells and things. But no scientist that I’m aware of argues that it makes brain cells that could be useful in treating Parkinson’s disease, cartilage for the joints and so on.

So it’s important as an investor to understand the differences.

But now we’ve now figured out how cloning works.

We can take cells from a human donor and, by genetically modifying them (I know this sounds amazing), can take them back to that same state that life was born from. We can take a skin cell back to the embryonic pluripotent stem cell state and (for drama, I’ll pause)…

Reset the clock of cell aging… making a young cell from an old cell.

We take cells from aged patients — maybe from a skin biopsy — and by this genetic process take them back to the beginning of life… indistinguishable from these cells that made you and me.

That’s where I would emphasize… decades in the future… people will look at this time in history and say, “You know, that’s like when the transistor was made.” That’s a big deal.

To be able to make young cells of any kind — liver cells, heart cells and so on — identical to a patient to repair problems we’ve never been able to repair before with medicine… Many drugs just make the pain from arthritis go away. To actually regrow the cartilage in your joints so you can run around again is a really big deal. And that’s part of the good news that I’m telling you about today.

We’ve been given these gifts as mankind….

And how we employ them and commercialize them and so on is really important, because it will impact all of us, and then, of course, our children’s generation.

Now, a technical hurdle…

Some of you may know…

I started my first company, called Geron Corp., because I was interested in gerontology. And Geron is where all the work began on stem cells. Geron publically announced they gave up on embryonic stem cells. Just stopped all of their work.

The problem Geron had, and many people are having, is inherent in the power of the cells themselves. They make everything.

So when you take these cells and try to make heart muscle, they also make — you know — tooth progenitors. Everything.

Toenail cells, and vertebrae, and liver cells, and bile duct cells. Everything.

So when you’re trying to make, say, heart cells to transplant in the heart, these tooth bud cells just start growing and you get a tooth growing in your heart. One of my early colleagues joked, “Eat your heart out”… and that’s not good.

That’s a problem inherent in the power of these cells: They make everything.

And how do we sort it all out?

It became a manufacturing nightmare.

Geron spent… the estimates vary between $200-450 million trying to solve that problem…

They actually went into patients with spinal cord injuries and were having this problem. The FDA put them on hold. Some of you may remember that. They were trying to engineer these problems — a very courageous, brave group of people, by the way — and it’s heartbreaking to see that whole effort shut down as they were moving forward.

The good news is that they’ve engineered new techniques, which I’m showing you.

We can now expand 100% pure lineages of cells downstream of these embryonic stem cells by starting with one of these downstream cells and expanding into a whole lineage we call “monoclonal embryonic progenitors.”

BioTime has isolated over 200 scalable and purified components of the human body this way. We call this technology ACTCellerate. We’ve filed patents on all these methods of growing the cells. So believe me, we’ve got plenty of things to make… way too many things to make… for human therapies. So we’re pretty excited about that.

The hope is to use progenitors to make any kind of cell in the human body, and then put them back into patients to repair the body in ways that it cannot naturally do. That is the vision of regenerative medicine.

So in summary, we’ve taken what we think is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the world a better place, to chisel away at a trillion-dollar health care problem facing the United States and to develop a new and brighter future for all of us… a new technology, a way of alleviating human disease on a scale we haven’t seen for a long time.


Dr. Michael West
For Tomorrow in Review