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Embryonic stem cell pioneers shut down trial

21 November 2011
Appeared in BioNews 634

A US drug company is abandoning its research into a novel paralysis treatment using embryonic stem cells, due to current economic conditions.

Geron, a leader in stem cell research, said it was ending its landmark project of a stem cell-based treatment for spinal cord injury after a strategic review of the costs involved. The move has stark implications for a field of research that offers potential medicines for many conditions that currently have inadequate or no treatments.

The California-based company's trial on patients with spinal cord injuries, the first on humans to be approved by the US Federal Drug Administration, began in October 2010, with four people having received treatment so far. The trial's primary goal was to assess the treatment's safety, and no ill-effects have been reported. However, Geron recognised the patients displayed no improvement, despite lab tests showing that paralysed rats gained the ability to move their hind legs.

They are now focusing resources on two new cancer drugs, imetelstat and GRN1005, both currently in mid-stage trials.

'Geron is a pioneer in the stem cell business and it is very disappointing to see that the company has had to change direction after years of being on top of the game', said Dr Dusko Ilic, senior lecturer in stem cell science at King's College London. 'The decision was obviously made for financial reasons. But the public will need reassurance that this is not the end of an era'.

By exiting its stem cell program the company is cutting its work force by 38 percent, a move which will allow them to continue without raising further funds until the end of their cancer drug trials within the next 18 months.

Geron's chief executive officer Dr John Scarlett said, given all the precautions in the stem cell field, he did not think they would have seen any results in the stem cell trial, which required funding of roughly $25 million per year, until 2014.

The news of Geron's switch of focus saw shares drop to a five-year low, falling by around 28 percent.

While some scientists were disappointed that Geron felt it necessary to pull out of the field, others questioned whether the company had been on the right track to begin with.

Professor John Martin of University College London said, 'I have said publicly that the Geron trial had no real chance of success because of the design and the disease targeted. It was an intrinsically flawed study. And for that reasons we should not be describing this as a setback'.

Geron abandons stem cell therapy as treatment for paralysis
Guardian |  15 November 2011
Geron Is Shutting Down Its Stem Cell Clinical Trial
New York Times |  14 November 2011
Geron's exit symbolic ding for stem cell research
Associated Press |  16 November 2011
Geron shares drop on stem cell retreat
Reuters |  15 November 2011
Long road to payoff forces pioneer’s exit from stem cell research, academic study to carry on
Washington Post |  16 November 2011
19 September 2016 - by Dr Greg Ball 
An experimental stem cell therapy appears to have restored some feeling and limb control in five patients paralysed by spinal cord injuries...
18 February 2013 - by Reuben Harwood 
What would be the first clinical trial to use induced pluripotent stem cells has been granted ethical approval in Japan...
22 October 2012 - by Dr Anna Cauldwell 
Two former CEOs of US drug company Geron are bidding to revive its stem cell assets...
8 May 2012 - by Dr Greg Ball 
Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are primed to self destruct in response to DNA damage in the developing embryo, scientists have reported. The research found that hESCs are highly responsive to DNA damage in the early stages of development, and can commit suicide for the greater good...
28 November 2011 - by Dr Marianne Kennedy 
On 18 November, Richard Grosjean became the first patient to receive a pioneering stem cell treatment in the upper part of the spinal cord. His procedure is part of an ongoing US-based clinical trial aimed at assessing the safety of injecting neural stem cells taken from eight-week-old fetuses into the spinal cords of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)...
19 September 2011 - by Dr Maria Teresa Esposito 
A new stem cell lab in Cape Town, South Africa, has renewed the debate over stem cell banking in the country...
20 June 2011 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
Two clinical trials to test whether embryonic stem cells can treat two incurable eye disorders have been launched in the USA. Twenty-four patients will be treated during the trials at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)...
18 October 2010 - by Dr Lux Fatimathas 
A patient paralysed through spinal cord injury has become the first person to receive human embryonic stem (ES) cell treatment in a clinical trial being conducted in the United States...
3 December 2007 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Last week's announcement that two teams of researchers, led by Dr Shinya Yamanaka at Japan's Kyoto University and Professor James Thompson at the University of Wisconsin in the US, had managed to 'reprogram' human skin cells into what they term induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells has re-ignited...
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