Biotech company Geron Corp. announced Monday that it would cease work on its stem cell programs, citing financial reasons.
The Menlo Park, Calif.-based biotech company was a leader in the field and had been conducting a Phase 1 clinical trial of a human embryonic stem cell-based therapy for patients with spinal cord injuries. Four patients had participated thus far in that effort, which was designed to test the new treatment's safety. GRNOPC1, as the cell-based therapy is called, did appear safe so far, and the company will continue to monitor the patients. But no new subjects will be enrolled in the study. Geron also will stop working on research into potential cures for heart disease and diabetes. It will cut 66 jobs, 38% of its workforce.
During a conference call on Tuesday, Geron chief executive Dr. John A. Scarlett said that "deciding to move out of the stem cell business was a very difficult decision to make," but that funding was scarce, and that by dropping the stem cell program the company could continue its work on cancer drugs without seeking additional funding. Geron is working to find partners to take over its stem cell research.
"These were business decisions we took on behalf of our shareholders," Scarlett said. "I don't think any of us have intentions of making comments on the field, which we think has tremendous promise."
The news came as a huge disappointment to patients with spinal cord injuries who hoped to soon see a cure for paralysis using embryonic stem cells, which can develop into any type of cell in the body.
It was also discouraging to other stem cell researchers who see enormous potential in stem cell-based cures but have been frustrated by the inability, so far, to get cures to patients. Technological hurdles, unrealistic expectations and ethical concerns -- harvesting embryonic stem cells involves destroying embryos -- have affected progress in the field.
Geron was the first company to get approval for a clinical trial of an embryonic stem cell-based therapy from the Food and Drug Administration. Only one other outfit, Worcester, Mass.-based Advanced Cell Technologies, has embryonic stem cell trials underway (to treat macular degeneration, a disorder that can cause blindness).
"To have the first group out the door throw their hat in doesn’t sound good," said Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology. "We need a big success. Someone has to show that it really works. Until that happens, a lot of people will be skeptical."
He added, however, that he still believed in stem cells' promise. "You see the cells and what they can do," he said. "To abandon this would be criminal."
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