Hopkins cell hunter is `Inventor of Year'

Device: Dr. Curt Civin invented a device and technique to separate stem cells, immature cells that give rise to all other cells in the blood and immune systems.

June 30, 1999|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

As a Harvard Medical School student studying immunology in the 1970s, Dr. Curt Civin began wondering how the body's immune system might be used to fight cancer.

Today, thanks to the physician's 15-year quest to answer that question, doctors will soon have a commercially available device that helps cancer patients' immune systems recover quickly after the heavy hit that bone-marrow transplants and high doses of chemotherapy deliver to the body.

Civin, a child oncologist and the King Fahd Professor of Pediatric Oncology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, will take center stage in Washington tomorrow when he is honored for the invention by the Intellectual Property Owners Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes patent and copyright protections.

The Washington trade association has named Civin its "Inventor of the Year."

Herbert C. Wamsley, executive director for the association, said Civin was chosen from among more than 50 nominees because his invention promised to have "a real impact on society, the quality of life of everyday people, and the economy."

"One of the reasons we give out this award is that we believe successful inventors should be as well known as basketball players," he said.

Civin's breakthrough is complex.

After accepting a position at Johns Hopkins in 1979 as a pediatric cancer doctor and immunology researcher, Civin began tinkering with stem cells. The rare, immature cells give rise to all other cells in the blood and immune systems.

Civin theorized that if stem cells could be injected into a patient's bloodstream after a bone-marrow transplant or chemotherapy, it could help regenerate a patient's bloodstream with healthy cells and give a quick boost to the weakened immune system.

First, though, he had to find a way to find and isolate the rare cells. After much toil, Civin found an antibody, dubbed CD34, which would hook onto stem cells, making it possible to identify them.

The breakthrough led to the development of a machine to speed the separating and harvesting of these "queen bee" progenitor cells.

Since 1995, about 10,000 cancer patients in clinical trials have received stem cell treatments using the device, the Isolex 300i Cell Selection System.

The machine is made by Nexell Therapeutics Inc. of Irvine, Calif., a joint venture of VIMRX Pharmaceuticals and Baxter Healthcare Corp.

Baxter sub-licensed the technology from Becton Dickinson Corp., which originally licensed Civin's technology from Johns Hopkins.

The $41,000 device is poised to become commercialized in the United States this year. Nexell said final Food and Drug Administration approval to begin marketing the device and the disposable equipment needed for stem cell treatments is "imminent."

The company is exploring its potential for treating other diseases, including treating autoimmune diseases and congenital blood disorders.

Hopkins and Civin will enjoy royalties from sales, which some in the industry project could hit $100 million once the device is widely marketed in the United States and Europe.

Dr. Martin D. Abeloff, director of the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, characterized Civin's stem cell separating technique as a "breakthrough discovery that has revolutionized basic research and provided many new options in cancer therapy."

Other winners of the inventor's award include such luminaries as Dr. Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the Jarvik Seven Artificial Heart, and Chrysler Corp. engineers Howard Benford, Gerald Holbrook, and Maurice Leising who developed the electronically controlled automatic transmission.

The 50-year-old physician and father of two grown sons is the second Maryland researcher to receive the honor.

Last year, a team of scientists at the former Oncormed Inc. in Gaithersburg was honored for developing a genetic test for detecting susceptibility to ovarian and breast cancer.

Civin spends his free time working out on home exercise machines so he can pursue Maryland's varied culinary offerings. "I guess you could say my hobby is eating," he said.

The award, he said, is heartening because it recognizes his work as advancing medical technology while opening a door for other researchers to study stem cells.

"The irony for me is that many researchers now look at my work and consider it part of the wallpaper," he said. "It's considered routine knowledge that you can separate [blood] stem cells and study them."

Civin said his deepest sense of pride comes, however, when he meets parents of children who have undergone stem cell treatment and are recovering.

The physician has several research projects under way in his Hopkins lab: improving the stem cell purification system, developing a way to culture large amounts of stem cells from a small sample of a donor's blood, and exploring the potential for stem cells to carry and activate genes to treat genetic disorders, such as enzyme deficiencies.

Pub Date: 6/30/99

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