Asterias Biotherapeutics (AST) continues to generate excitement and buzz around its stem cell treatment for catastrophic spinal cord injury (SCI). I wrote about this historic event back in September. That’s when the company first released results about this transformative medical breakthrough.
Asterias has now released follow-up data. This was gathered at six and nine months after six quadriplegics received treatment. All six continue to show improvement in motor function and sensation. This is truly wonderful news for those with SCI.
There are also broader medical implications… and these should be of great interest to investors.
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The superior power of embryonic stem cells
The difference between this stem cell therapy and traditional drug therapies is huge. Drug therapies have specific and mechanistic impacts. But stem cells derived from embryonic cells work a different way. They draw on the massive DNA databanks in their nuclei. They then use these genetic programs to interact with their surroundings and repair damaged structures.
The Asterias oligodendrocyte progenitor cells were derived from a single unused embryo (from an IVF procedure in the late 1990s). Such embryos are often discarded. But this one was donated to create an unlimited number of therapeutic cells. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations approved the cell line.
When injected into the site of a spinal cord injury, these cells create healthy new spinal cord structures. They restore myelin sheaths (which are like an insulating material on nerves) and repair the lesions caused by injury. They send chemical signals that stimulate the growth of nerve cells. They also generate blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients (and clear out toxic substances).
In works of science fiction, you may have read about “nanobots.” These are theoretical nanomachines that can fix profound biological damage. But the truth is that we all have this type of device in our bodies at the embryonic stage of development. Each uses the complex repair systems that can be found in the human genome.
These are the cells (AST-OPC1) that were given to patients in the SCI trial. The result is that patients who could not breathe on their own can now perform complex physical tasks. We have seen them lift weights, text, and type 35 words a minute… and they continue to improve.
Most people assume this therapy must be the most modern of biotechnologies. In truth, it’s quite old in modern scientific terms. Dr. Michael West oversaw the creation of this therapy over two decades ago as Geron’s chief science officer.
When that company stumbled, he brought the clinical trial and Geron’s IP into BioTime (*see disclosure below) as Asterias Biotherapeutics. When I spoke to Asterias CEO Steve Cartt, his excitement was palpable. Here’s why.
Each year, about 17,000 people experience the kind of spinal cord injuries targeted by the current trial. AST-OPC1 would be the only approved treatment for this condition.
Cartt is now considering plans to extend clinical trials to those who have suffered less serious spinal cord injuries. This means the patient population for AST-OPC1 cells would expand a great deal.
Other potential stem cell therapies
These cells might also be used to treat other neurological diseases. Multiple sclerosis, for example, also involves the deterioration of the myelin nerve sheath. But this is just the tip of iceberg for pluripotent stem cell therapies. Many of our worst diseases can be addressed by these biological nanobots.
If spinal cords can be repaired, so can the connective tissue deterioration that leads to arthritis and joint failures. I’m convinced we will see simple injections of stem cells to repair hip, knee, and other joints in the future.
BioTime has also done extensive research into stem cell therapies for heart muscle and cardiovascular repair. In fact, Dr. West has converted some of my cells to embryonic status. He then engineered them to become my heart muscle cells. There have been animal studies as well. The results indicate that these types of cells will repair the damage done by heart attacks.
Next up, though, is blindness. A BioTime subsidiary in Israel, Cell Cure Neurosciences, is in a phase 1/2a trial to treat dry age-related macular degeneration (dry-AMD). Israeli government grants have helped fund this project.
Based on animal trials, it seems that the company’s retinal pigment epithelial cells will be successful in treating the leading cause of adult blindness. Dry-AMD is an attractive target because there is no effective treatment. From what I’ve learned, I think that these cells will treat the wet form of macular degeneration and other causes of blindness as well.
This is the real importance of the Asterias SCI trial. Right now, we’re seeing the proof of concept for a biotechnology that will disrupt the entire healthcare market. I’ve written about this extensively in Tech Digest (subscribe here for free).
This change will happen sooner than you think. Japan has already revised its Pharmaceutical Affairs Act to speed up the approval of stem cell therapies. And on the home front, several of President Trump’s candidates for FDA chief have endorsed similar reforms.
(*Disclosure: The editors or principals of Mauldin Economics have a position in BioTime (BTX) which has significant ownership of Asterias stock. They have no plans to sell their position at this time. There is an ethics policy in place that specifies subscribers must receive advance notice should the editors or principals intend to sell.)