Sunday, November 20, 2011

California Stem Cell Agency Trying to Line Up Buyers for Geron hESC Business

The president of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, Alan Trounson, says it is in talks with at least three firms in an effort to salvage Geron's orphan stem cell business.

Andy Coghlan of New Scientist magazine reported Trounson's remarks in an article on Friday headlined, "Is there life for stem cells after Geron."

The Menlo Park, Ca., firm last Monday abandoned its stem cell therapy development program and terminated a much-heralded clinical trial that was the first-ever in the nation for an hESC therapy. The California stem cell agency loaned the firm $25 million just last May as part of its push towards bringing therapies to market. Geron last week paid back the $6 million of the loan that it had received up to that date.

Details were sketchy in New Scientist about CIRM's attempt to serve as a stem cell matchmaker. Coghlan had only this to say,
"Alan Trounson, the institute's president, told New Scientist that CIRM is now talking to at least three other possible backers to take over the spinal trial. 'We'll have to wait and see, but it's important that it happens in a short time [because] once it gets beyond a couple of months, it gets very difficult to hold people together,' he said."
Coghlan noted that Geron, in addition to the spinal therapy clinical trial, had three other hESC possible trials lined up for diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.

Last week, several names surfaced in the media of a number of possible buyer/partners/backers for Geron's stem cell business. They included Pfizer, which is involved with Peter Coffey of UC Santa Barbara in another possible hESC trial; BioTime of Alameda, Ca., which has a number of Geron alums, and Teva Pharamaceutical of Israel. UC Irvine researcher Hans Kierstead, whose work led to the Geron spinal trial, was also in the mix, according to a report in the Orange County Register. Pat Brennan, who interviewed Kierstead, wrote that the researcher said "he is exploring alternative funding to continue the trials." Keirstead, who is on the scientific advisory board of California Stem Cell of Irvine, Ca., also said the trial may well go overseas.

The California Stem Cell Report queried the firms identified last week concerning their intentions towards Geron. All declined to comment specifically. Michael West, CEO of BioTime, also said,
"I think the commentary you heard was a deduction based on my prior role at Geron, our being so geographically close to Geron, and, of course, our entire focus on hES cells and reprogramming. I will only add that I continue to believe passionately in the cause. More than ever, we have an historic opportunity to impact the practice of medicine. That is about as far as I can go."
West founded Geron and has served as president of Advanced Cell Technology of Santa Monica, Ca., which is conducting an hESC trial at UCLA involving eye disease.

Brokering a deal for Geron's stem cell business places the California stem cell agency in a novel position and will test its business skills. CIRM's activities have been largely devoted to awarding grants and loans. Its loan to Geron was only approved by directors just six months ago. The loan agreement was not actually signed until August.

Under CIRM's procedures, companies receiving loans are supposed to be vetted during a private due diligence process. However, one might question the quality of that due diligence given Geron's withdrawal from the business only three months after the loan was finalized.

The key question, in trying to attract buyers for Geron's orphan stem cell project, will be not so much about whether it is good science but whether it is a good business.

1 comment:

  1. Jim Fossett11:53 AM

    This role for CIRM as venture capitalist rather than as straight research project funder may become more prominent as CIRM becomes more involved with biotech companies closer to bringing projects to market. Venture capital firms in this area typically expect most of their investments to fail, and expect the few that succeed to make up their losses on the others. These firms do take on risk,including taking equity positions, which I'm not clear if CIRM can do. On the one hand, there is a risk of failure; on the other hand, it gives the state a share in the upside if projects work.


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