Tag: Wirtschaftswoche

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Hearts can heal themselves, at least in newborn mice, reports  Sindya N. Bhando in the New York Times. She features a research group that is now trying to identify the genes regulating the process. If the researchers could restart the genetic network in adult animals, science would be a step closer to a better heart disease therapy.

Matthew Herper in Forbes deals with the success of Vertex’s cystic fibrosis drug VX-770 in its 161 patients STRIVE clinical trial. While it works only in a small subset of patients carrying a particular mutation, in this group it improved the patients’ ability to exhale by about 17%. Robert Langreth, also in Forbes, introduces biotech investor Randal J. Kirk who made more than $2 billion from his biotech investments, among others, by selling New River Pharmaceuticals to Shire. Right now, he is about selling his anti-depressant play Clinical Data to Forest Laboratories. Kirk prefers to buy unknown companies at a very low price and stays until a drug gets to the market. His latest interest focuses on synthetic biology, and he runs and finances the 180-person company  Intrexon, founded in 1998 by biologist Thomas Reed. Intrexon claims to command a library of 70,000 DNA pieces that can be used to control gene expression. This enables it, as an example, to induce and regulate in vivo protein expression through dosing of a small molecule activator. Applications range from medical to agricultural and industrial biotechnology and protein production.

Kate McAlpine in New Scientist explains how a technology that manipulates light so that it can deliver sharp images through opaque materials might someday be useful to treat cancer. Like opaque material, human skin scatters light in both time and space, however with the new technology it may be possible to exactly target and destroy cancer cells by laser light without harming surrounding healthy tissue.

Joachim Müller-Jung in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reports on a new technology to improve hygiene in clinics. Developed by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics it generates cold plasma gas that is able to kill bacteria even in skin pores within three to five seconds. The technology already is being used in food processing and for treating chronic wounds. The device is about the size of a hand dryer already used in public lavatories. A license to the technology is still available.

Susanne Kutter in Die Wirtschaftswoche reports on a new test to diagnose a myocardial infarction on the spot. It is based on the enzyme glycogen-phosphorylase BB which is released into the blood stream as soon as the heart muscle is suffering from oxygen deprivation. A common competitor test on the market is based on a molecule released only after disintegration of heart muscles cells and tissue, i.e. hours after the incident. The Diacordon test is marketed by Diagenics.

Food for Thought: Posing Stem Cell Therapy at Risk

Many researchers agree that stem cells – whether they originate from embryos or from adults – bear great therapeutic potential. They are toti- or pluripotent cells, which by definition are able to regenerate all sorts of damaged tissue – provided their differentiation is confined to the desired environment, leads to the right type of tissue and can be controlled so as not to give rise to side effects, e.g. tumors.

How to fulfill these preconditions is under thorough investigation in many research institutions, but most experts agree that science is not there yet.

Nevertheless, some researchers have set out to try – and the danger is great that stem cell therapy therefore will follow the thorny gene therapy road that started in the early nineties with unfounded experiments, serious side effects, and deaths of patients.

The first stem cell therapy related death is already there: as reported by German magazine “Wirtschaftswoche” today, this month an eight years old boy died from cerebral hemorrhage after receiving an injection of autologous stem cells into his brain. He had been treated by researchers from German stem cell therapy company XCell-Center (Düsseldorf, Germany). In Germany, autologous stem cell therapies are regarded as individual medicinal products (“Individualarzneimittel”), which require a manufacturing authorization but no regulatory approval as a drug. Already in spring, a ten years old boy developed the same condition after stem cell treatment of his brain by XCell-Center. Luckily, he survived.

But the FDA-approved clinical trial involving embryonic stem cells that started in Atlanta, GA, last week is also met with scepticism by experts. In this trial, the first patient  suffering from spinal cord injury was injected with about 2 million oligodendrocyte progenitor cells derived from human embryonic stem cells. While the researchers of Atlanta’s Shepherd Center and stem cell company Geron Corp., sponsor of the trial,  hope that the cells will form a restorative coating around the damaged spinal cord, experts such as Volker Dietz, professor at Neuroscience Center Zurich and a specialist in treating paraplegic patients, react with “disgust and infuriation”. He told German Sunday paper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung” this weekend that the treatment approach was unfounded as the regeneration of nerve cells is far from being understood and previous experiments transplanting coating cells – the cells the US researchers are trying to generate – did not lead to any effects. Dietz said, among his fellow experts, he had “not heard a single positive voice yet”.

After two decades, gene therapy today is a niche application with sparse successes, which is the result of serious blows the field experienced after some of the first patients died from side effects such as leukemias. Consequently, parliaments, regulators, funding agencies and the public as well as investors regarded the field as dangerous and too risky to pursue. With trials not supported by many specialists and the first dead patient, it seems the same scenario is unfolding today. Therefore, today’s  self-styled pioneers of stem cell therapy  not only pose patients at risk, but the field as a whole.

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