Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Hard Business of Stem Cell Economics and Patient Needs

Premature clinical trial shutdown?
Implications for California stem cell agency

The vagaries of Big Pharma and development of stem cell therapies -- plus the frustrations of a prominent Stanford researcher -- were the topic this week in a major California newspaper.

Irv Weissman, Stanford photo
The researcher is Irv Weissman, head of the stem cell program at the Palo Alto university. The companies are Sandoz Pharma, Ciba-Geigy and Novartis. The story also includes a $392 million deal involving Weissman.

The basic storyline, as reported June 14 by Lisa Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News, is that years ago Weissman developed a “unique way to grow and deliver blood stem cells to desperate patients with aggressive cancers, boosting survival rates.”

According to Krieger, Weissman in effect sold the potential stem cell therapy to Sandoz in 1991 for $392 million in an effort to place “his innovation into the hands of a company large and prosperous enough to accelerate research.”

Sandoz then “merged with Ciba-Geigy and became Novartis, which bought the remainder of Weissman's company (Systemix) for $76 million in 1997 -- and, with it, all patents,” according to Krieger.

Novartis shut down the trials in 2000 along with Weissman’s company. Krieger reported that the firm “ended the program because it couldn't produce blood stem cells in large enough numbers to develop a commercial market -- and it was not in the business of producing personalized ‘custom-made’ therapies.”

Krieger continued,

Karuna Jaggar, BCA photo
"'Well before the launch of the War on Cancer, the corporate profit motive has driven the cancer research agenda,' said Karuna Jaggar, executive director of the Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based patient advocacy group. 'Time and again, history has shown that it is not only the possibility of saving lives but the potential of making money that has steered the research agenda toward some areas -- and away from others.
"'As long we have a health care system that puts profits before patients we will always be at the mercy of corporations looking to make profits. Any new innovation needs to be evidence-based and proven safe and effective no matter what money is to or is not to be made,' she said.”

Krieger wrote,
“Now, a quarter-century after it was conceived, the technique is finally back in Weissman's hands at Stanford -- although Novartis still holds the patent.” 
She reported that Weissman hopes to take the potential therapy forward in a non-profit setting.

Krieger has much more in her story, which offers considerable food for thought, particularly in connection with California’s $3 billion effort to bring a stem cell therapy into widespread use. It has not done so yet after nearly 11 years of trying and the expenditure of roughly $1.9 billion.  The agency also suffered a significant blow at the hands of one company, Geron, that dropped -- for financial reasons -- the first-ever clinical trial  for a hESC stem cell therapy, which the agency had backed with a $25 millon loan. 

The agency is currently revising its strategic plan. Randy Mills, president of the agency, says he is serious about developing a solid plan that will be followed assiduously with measurable benchmarks along the way.  

Our view: One important element in the new plan should focus on avoiding situations such as those involving Geron (see here and here) and the morass that Weissman fell into.

Whether one likes it or not, the facts of life in the biomedical world – pleasant or unpleasant – mean that business must be firmly engaged if a stem cell therapy is to be widely available to the public. Government agencies, however, often fall short in their dealings with private firms. For the stem cell agency, that means it needs a keen eye and clear goals when it deals with Big Pharma and stem cell firms. And if the California’s stem cell agency is to deliver on the promises made to the people of California, it must be willing to walk away from a deal if the terms aren’t right.

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