Published online 22 August 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1060


Blood transfusion for stem cell company?

Red blood cells could provide new hope for beleaguered ACT

red blood cellsCould red blood cells be mass-produced?Punchstock

Observers could be forgiven for thinking they had spotted a phoenix rising from the ashes of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) earlier this week. The Los Angeles, California-based company, which is devoted to turning human embryonic stem cells into therapies, had been reported on the verge of extinction last month after it told the US Securities and Exchange Commission that it would run out of money on 31 July.

But on Tuesday (19 August), the journal Blood published a paper reporting the efficient production of red blood cells from human embryonic stem cells. Lead author was Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at ACT (his co-authors are from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota). Up to 100 billion cells had been generated from a single plate of stem cells. The cells produced had oxygen-carrying abilities and physiological responses comparable to those of the cells from blood banks used in transfusions.

The paper "clearly shows that stem cells could serve as an unlimited source of blood for transfusion in the future," Lanza says. "The potential here could be enormous."

Other experts not affiliated with the research agreed.

"This is a major advance because it shows for the first time that these cells can be expanded; they can create [red] blood cells and they can carry oxygen," says Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "Blood therapies and blood replacement agents are an area of large need."

“We are still going paycheck to paycheck”

Robert Lanza
Advanced Cell Technology

Investors responded enthusiastically, boosting the share price of the beleaguered company from US$0.04 to more than $0.07; by 21 August it had settled back to $0.06.

But such volatility on the heels of hopeful headlines is typical in the biotech sector. It is unlikely to signal the cavalry arriving to rescue ACT, the share price of which has been at an all-time low in recent months.

While the company searches for a big deal to stabilize it financially, Lanza says, "We are still going paycheck to paycheck." That's a familiar feeling for veterans of the 14-year-old company, he notes. "It's probably the fifth or sixth time we've had the phones turned off. When you get in trouble, that's your first warning."

The company has been living hand to mouth by signing smaller licensing deals. On Thursday (21 August), the life-sciences research company Embryome Sciences, a subsidiary of BioTime, announced a licensing agreement with ACT. Embryome, based in Alameda, California, has licensed a portfolio of patents related to virus-free induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cell differentiation technology.

Although key technical hurdles remain to moving ACT's red blood cell method to the clinic, there are also questions about the commercial prospects for a product that would have to compete with freely donated blood.

"It's certainly a very exciting result from a scientific perspective," says Cathy Prescott, the director of Biolatris, a biotechnology and health-care consulting company in Cambridge, UK. "But I would like to have a good discussion about what their commercial plans would be arising from this." 

  • References

    1. Lu, S. et al. Blood doi:10.1182/blood-2008-05-157198 (2008).
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