Hopkins studies on stem cells lift commercial hopes

Institute's research aims to coax cells into healing the body

`A nucleus for companies'

March 11, 2001|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University's new stem-cell institute puts the school among an elite handful focusing on research that could yield a new methodology of treating disease and injury - essentially coaxing cells into healing the body.

Now, even as Hopkins begins to recruit more scientists to the Institute for Cell Engineering announced in January, some wonder whether the institute also could spawn a cluster of new companies in its hometown.

"If the institute is successful and results in some commercially exploitable technology, it absolutely would be [able] to serve as a nucleus for companies in Baltimore," said Dr. Michael J. Brennan, general partner at venture capital firm Oxford Bioscience Partners in Boston.

To be sure, predicting the business implications of a yet-to-be-proven technology is an uncertain exercise. Few products made from stem cells, the progenitor cells from which all others in the body develop, have yet to reach the market. And Baltimore is home to only one prominent business devoted to the development of stem-cell therapies - Osiris Therapeutics Inc.

But Osiris' experimental therapies designed to regenerate damaged heart tissue and grow new bone are examples of how scientists are learning to coax stem cells to morph into other cells that fix the body's problems. The approach could one day offer alternatives to drugs or surgery. Newly grown neural cells might repair spinal-cord injuries. Insulin-producing cells might cure diabetes. Organs might even be grown to replace malfunctioning ones.

"If you know how to program them, they can become therapeutic agents," said Dr. Elias Zerhouni, executive vice dean of Johns Hopkins Medicine. "It's almost like a small computer program."

The medical school is forming the institute with a $58.5 million gift from an anonymous benefactor. Its 40,000 square feet will be housed in part of a new research building, to which the state of Maryland contributed $23.8 million, to be completed in 2003. Until then, other Hopkins lab space will be used.

But whether the institute will prompt stem-cell based businesses to crop up in Baltimore is dependent on a host of factors, not the least of which is how successful the institute's basic research is at unlocking the cells' secrets.

Basic research could explain how the cells differentiate into others, allowing other Hopkins labs to translate that knowledge into therapies for specific illnesses. The university then could license the therapies to existing companies or new ones formed to bring the therapies to market.

Biotech industry experts from venture capitalists to stem-cell company executives say other factors govern whether the city ultimately develops a cluster of such businesses. They include the willingness of outside venture capitalists to invest in Baltimore and the availability of commercial lab space and skilled employees. Other factors are whether Hopkins scientists will leave the university to shepherd businesses founded on the strength of their research and how aggressively the school seeks to license its discoveries to new companies.

Despite a wealth of cutting-edge research, Hopkins hasn't been known for start-ups. Its prolific scientists tend to stay put, content to discover and publish. And while its medical school research has generated more than 600 patents, with another 1,600-plus patent applications in process, its ideas have generated only about 27 new companies, according to the school's Office of Technology Licensing. A minority of those, including publicly traded Guilford Pharmaceuticals Corp., are in Baltimore. (Far more Hopkins discoveries have been licensed to already existing companies).

"Hopkins does not start companies: It's not our role," said William P. Tew, executive director of the medical school's Office of Technology Licensing, which negotiates rights to the school's patented discoveries.

"To start setting expectations, I think, is wrong," Tew said of any projections that the institute's research could start the ball rolling toward new therapies and start-ups. "I think we need to be ready to seize the opportunity when it occurs. But anything more than that is inappropriate."

Still, a number of communities stand as examples of how research at such institutes can lead to companies, which spawn more companies and attract still others. One example: The Interstate 270 Technology Corridor between Frederick and Bethesda.

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