Monday, November 14, 2011

Geron Quits Stem Cell Research; Move Deemed Setback to the Field

In a surprise move, Geron today said it was terminating its stem cell business and what was the first-ever clinical trial of an hESC therapy, a potential product backed by a $25 million loan made by the California stem cell agency only six months ago.

Geron's move has "stark implications" for development of stem cell therapies in the United States, The Associated Press said. Andrew Pollack of the New York Times reported,
"The move is expected to be widely seen as a setback for the field, because of Geron’s central role."
The Menlo Park, Ca., company said it will fire 66 employees, 38 percent of its workforce, and will try to find buyers for its stem cell business.

The company's CEO, John Scarlett, cited the need to "focus our resources" given the "current environment of capital scarcity and uncertain economic conditions." The clinical trial of its spinal cord treatment will be closed to further enrollment, although it will continue to follow all four enrolled patients. The company said it now plans to focus on cancer drugs.

The company did not mention CIRM or the $25 million loan in its statement. The stem cell agency issued a press release that said,
"Geron had received $6.42 million of their loan, which the company today repaid in full with accrued interest."
In the news release, CIRM's Ellen Feigal, senior vice president for research and development, did not comment directly on Geron's move. She said CIRM remained optimistic about "many exciting stem cell programs in California." She said moving a therapy into the clinic is a "highly complicated process."

Absent from CIRM's press release were any comments from its new chairman, Jonathan Thomas, and CIRM President Alan Trounson.

Dropping stem cell research will improve Geron's cash situation. The New York Times' Pollack said,
"Geron will be able to last without needing to raise new money until it receives results of clinical trials of its cancer drugs over the next 18 months. By contrast, Dr. Scarlett said, given all the precautions in the stem cell field, he did not think there would be results from the stem cell trial until 2014."
The AP quoted stock analyst Steve Brozak of WBB Securities as saying Geron had encountered difficulty in finding partners for its stem cell program. He said potential partners wanted to see "later stage results." Of the clinical trial, Brozak said,
"It could be outsourced to a place like China very easily. In that case, this would be the de facto abdication of U.S. leadership in biotechnology."
With Geron's departure, Advanced Cell Technology of Santa Monica, Ca., is the only company with a clinical trial involving hESC, one targeting macular degeneration. ACT has never received an award from the California stem cell agency although it relocated its headquarters to California in the wake of the passage of Prop. 71, which created the state's $3 billion research program.

ACT was widely believed to have applied in CIRM's financing round last spring involving Geron.

CIRM directors approved the loan to Geron last May in a meeting that departed radically from its normal awards process.

As reported by the California Stem Cell Report in August,
"The Geron application was not given a public scientific score, standard practice for all the other 433 applications that the agency has approved over the last six years. The usual summary of grant reviewer comments was not provided to the public or the board. The three other applicants in the $50 million round all withdrew prior to presentation to the CIRM board – another first in CIRM's grant program. And no public explanation was provided at the time for the departures from long-established procedures." 


  1. If stem cell treatments were a boxing match, Embryonic stem cell treatments would be the 500 lb Gorilla and Adult stem cell treatments would be the small, unknown underdog. Today, the Gorilla threw in the towel! What would cause the leading Embryonic stem cell Pharmaceutical company with multiple Embryonic stem cell products in development to end all of their Embryonic stem cell programs? What does it mean for patients who were waiting with desperate hope for the benefits of Embryonic stem cells?

  2. Just for perspective from a stem cell researcher who studies both adult and embryonic stem cells, Mr. Granovsky's article to which he links is full of so many misstatements and inaccuracies that it can only be characterized as propaganda.
    I would also say to Mr. Granovsky that the "war" that he refers to in his article as "being over" is your war against millions of patients and against the hope of their families. And if you want to call it a war, believe me, it isn't over. This was just one battle.

  3. Jim Fossett8:01 AM

    Mr. Granovsky also mischaracterizes the funding picture for hESC and other sorts of stem cell research. Outside of CIRM, there's significantly more money going to other sorts of stem cells than into hESC. NIH, for example, only spent about$165 million on hESC research in FY 2010, as against $1.25 billion on all other types of stem cell research. Private funding is harder to count, but might well be following the same funding pattern. If there's a 500 lb gorilla here, it's not hESC.


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