Tuesday, February 17, 2015

ViaCyte's hESC Diabetes Effort Examined, Critiqued in MIT Publication

The ViaCyte device -- photo San Diego U-T
The state of California has invested $55 million in a San Diego firm that last week attracted some East Coast attention for its efforts to develop a “virtual” cure involving Type 1 diabetes.

The firm is Viacyte, which is in a stage one clinical trial involving its therapy. The MIT Technology Review looked at the potential product on Feb. 12.

In a piece headlined “A Pancreas in a Capsule,” writer Brian Alexander said,
“In October, a San Diego man had two pouches of lab-grown pancreas cells, derived from human embryonic stem cells, inserted into his body through incisions in his back. Two other patients have since received the stand-in pancreas, engineered by a small San Diego company called ViaCyte.
“It’s a significant step, partly because the ViaCyte study is only the third in the United States of any treatment based on embryonic stem cells.” 
All three of those trials involve California. A spinal cord injury treatment is being tested by Asterias Biotherapeutics of Menlo Park, Ca. It has received $14.3 million from the California stem cell agency. The other trial is for macular degeneration and is being conducted at UCLA by Steven Schwartz for Ocata Therapeutics of Massachusetts, formerly known as Advanced Cell Technology. The firm applied multiple times for California funding but was rejected.

Viacyte, which has received more funding from the stem cell agency than any other company, began its efforts optimistically years ago. Alexander wrote,  
“'When I first came to ViaCyte 12 years ago, cell replacement through stem cells was so obvious. We all said, ‘Oh, that’s the low-hanging fruit,’” says Kevin D’Amour, the company’s chief scientific officer. 'But it turned out to be a coconut, not an apple.'” 
 (Robert Henry at UC San Diego is conducting the  trial on behalf of ViaCyte.)
Alexander continued, 
Douglas Melton, a biologist at Harvard University who has two children with type 1 diabetes, worries that the ViaCyte system may not work. He thinks deposits of fibrotic, scarlike tissue will glom onto the capsules, starving the cells inside of oxygen and blocking their ability to sense sugar and release insulin. Melton also thinks it might take immature cells up to three months to become fully functional. And many won’t become beta cells, winding up as other types of pancreatic cells instead. 
Doug Melton -- Harvard photo
“Melton says the ‘inefficiency’ of the system means the company ‘would need a device about the size of a DVD player’ to have enough beta cells to effectively treat diabetes. ViaCyte says it thinks 300 million of its cells, or about eight of its capsules, would be enough. (Each capsule holds a volume of cells smaller than one M&M candy.)  Last October, Melton’s group announced it had managed to grow fully mature, functional beta cells in the lab, a scientific first that took more than 10 years of trial-and-error research. Melton thinks implanting mature cells would allow a bioartificial pancreas to start working right away.”

The piece in the MIT Technology Review is a plus for the California stem cell agency, which is seeking to raise its profile.  The agency's president, Randy Mills, is making a push to draw interest from non-California enterprises that might find funding from California attractive even with restrictions that it be used in the Golden State.

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