Jewish World Review

After 15 years and $150 million Geron stops experimenting on human embryonic stem cells

By Steve Johnson

Pioneering company is turning attention elsewhere | (MCT) Menlo Park, Calif.-based Geron, the first company ever permitted to test human embryonic stem cells on people, announced Monday it is halting the studies to focus on developing two cancer drugs.

Researchers have long held out hope that embryonic stem cells would be the key to treating a variety of ailments because they can turn into any type of tissue in the body and be reproduced in vast quantities in laboratories. But studies to develop treatments from them have been subject to delays in part because of ethical concerns surrounding the cells, which are harvested from discarded 3-to-5-day-old embryos. Monday's decision throws into question the future of the most-advanced study so far and puts a cloud over the commercial viability of stem cell treatments.

David Greenwood, Geron's president and chief financial officer, said halting the stem cell studies was not something the company took lightly.

"This is a decision made quite reluctantly by our board," he said. "We pioneered this field."

Although the company has sufficient finances to cover its cancer-drug costs over the next 20 months without having to raise more money, it noted in a news release, "this would not be possible if we continue to fund the stem cell programs at the current levels."

Although no problems have turned up so far in the stem cell study, Geron's cancer-drug studies are further along, making them a better bet for the company to pursue, Greenwood said. He added that it would have been difficult raising cash to continue studying both types of treatments, given Geron's stock price, which has fallen from $5.16 at the beginning of the year to $2.20 at the close of trading Monday. In after-hours trading following the stem cell announcement, Geron's shares sagged further to $1.82.


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Incorporated in 1990, Geron has been among the world's most closely watched biotech companies because it was the first to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to test human embryonic stem cells on people. Many other companies are working with adult stem cells, which can be harvested from various parts of the body.

Geron spent more than 15 years and $150 million developing its treatment for spinal injuries, which the FDA approved for human testing in July 2010. The study is designed to determine if the cells can regrow a spinal insulating material, called myelin, which often gets stripped away in patients suffering severe spinal injuries. The first phase of the test, which so far has involved four patients, is designed to see if the treatment has any unanticipated side effects.

To finish the first phase, Geron had planned to test the treatment on about 30 patients, Greenwood said. Later stages of the study would examine whether the treatment is effective at regrowing myelin and helping paralyzed patients regain movement.

Last November, the FDA gave a second company — Advanced Cell Technology of Santa Monica, Calif. — approval to also test human embryonic stem cells on people. That test is being conducted on patients suffering from a rare disease that causes a serious loss of vision.

Officials with the state's $3 billion taxpayer-financed stem cell institute, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, issued a statement also expressing confidence that stem cell studies would continue to flourish, despite Geron's decision.

"We are optimistic about many exciting stem cell programs in California and internationally that have the potential to treat chronic diseases and conditions and that will benefit from the regulatory path first forged by Geron," according to the statement, which quoted Ellen Feigal, the agency's senior vice president for research and development.