Street Talk: Stem Cells: Tough Sell on Wall Street?

December 1, 2006
Brian O'Connell

BioPharm International, BioPharm International-12-01-2006, Volume 19, Issue 12

There are 72 maladies for which human patients have received some benefit from adult stem cell interventions.

Actor Michael J. Fox, Parkinson's sufferer and advocate for higher visibility and more funds to slay the disease, used November's Congressional elections to place the stem cell research squarely in the public eye.

Brian O'Connell

He also stirred up quite a bit of political dust in doing so.

Obviously, my heart goes out to Mr. Fox, who is displaying a great deal of courage in going public with his condition and in personalizing the disease to reveal its insidiousness. But when you make Parkinson'sor any disease—a political cause, some facts make it to the light of day and some don't. Wall Street may be bloodless, and may aim to keep emotion out of big investment decisions, but it will unearth all of the facts before traders step up to the plate and invest their money. And without the facts, you have more trouble than Madonna at an African orphanage.

So what's the real skinny on stem cell research? What we know is that embryonic stem cells could be the key to curing paralysis and brain damage. We also know that Christian and conservative groups disapprove of embryonic stem cells because they are harvested from human embryos. And we also know that, so far, embryonic stem cells aren't the answer to diseases like Parkinson's that advocates would have us believe. In fact, there is little or no scientific evidence that embryonic stem cells fight diseases any more effectively than four-leaf clovers or eye of newt.

As Wesley J. Smith writes in the August 6, 2006 edition of The Weekly Standard, "While there have certainly been successes in embryonic stem cell experiments in animal studies—many of them hyped to the hilt in mainstream media reports—the numbers pale in comparison with the many research advances being made with adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells, which are already being used in human patients."

Based on the published science, there are 72 maladies for which human patients have received some benefit (which is not the same as being "cured") from adult stem cell or umbilical cord blood interventions. Meanwhile, embryonic stem cells have yet to demonstrate any human therapeutic use.

So, if we take the traditional route we take in these columns and follow the money, what do we find?

Adult stem cells, donated by grown men and women, do work against disease. They are way ahead of their embryonic offshoots in effective products on the market.

Investors don't waste precious financial resources on technologies that offer little or no potential. Hence, there is no stampede toward public companies engaged in embryonic stem cell research (it's only fair to mention that much of the research in embryonic stem cells is being done in nonprofit venues, like universities).

Conversely, there is plenty of evidence that investors are warming up to adult stem cell research. Adult stem cell stocks are light years ahead of embryonic stem cell companies in terms of stock trading activity. Adult stem cell companies like Osiris, Cytori, and Aastrom are attracting big investment money, most notably because adult stem cell research has demonstrated that the technology can work against myriad diseases, and that adult stem cell firms aren't shackled by the political debate over embryonic stem cell companies.

Let's look at Osiris. That company, based in Baltimore, MD, recently garnered $38 million in an initial public offering. Investors are buzzing over Osiris because it is one of the few companies that actually has a stem cell product out on the marketplace. The company's Osteocel helps trigger growth in damaged bones. The firm has a second product, Prochymal, which Osiris says may be the cure for a fatal malady known as Acute Graft versus Host Disease. I never heard of it either until I ran into Osiris, but the benefits of Prochymal may be bigger than some might think. It turn out that Acute Graft versus Host disease afflicts about 50% of all patients who receive a bone marrow transplant for anemia and other diseases, and attacks the gastrointestinal tract, skin, and liver. Prochymal also is in Phase 2 clinical trials as a treatment for Crohns disease.

Prochymal has tested well, and has Wall Street analysts intrigued with its upcoming third-stage clinical trials for Acute Graft. Osiris says that the drug could be out by 2007. On the horizon is a product called Provacel, which Osiris says can rebuild heart tissue (from adult stem cells) for patients who have suffered a heart attack, and can also be used to refortify knee cartilage.

Then take a look at Aastrom Biosciences, a biotech firm based in Ann Arbor, MI, that is also in the bone regrowth business (they call it tissue repair cell technology, or TRC). The company is closing in on a product that would rebuild long bone and jaw bone fractures.

Aastrom bills its TRC-based products as a unique cell mixture containing stromal, stem and progenitor cell populations, produced outside the body from a small amount of bone marrow taken from the patient. Aastrom claims that TRC-based products have been used in over 230 patients, and are currently in clinical trials for bone regeneration (long bone fractures and spine fusion) and vascular regeneration (critical limb ischemia) applications. The company has reported positive interim clinical trial results for TRCs, suggesting both the clinical safety and the ability of TRCs to induce tissue regeneration in long bone fractures and jaw bone reconstruction. Recently, the company's proprietary TRCs received an Orphan Drug Designation from the US Food and Drug Administration for use in the treatment of osteonecrosis of the femoral head. In addition, Aastrom is developing plans for a TRC-based therapy for cardiac regeneration.

The company's stock has risen 33% since October 2006—to $1.60 per share—and if you believe in stem cell technology, Aastrom offers an avenue into the market at a cheap price.

Another stem cell company that Wall Street types are keeping a close eye in is Cytori Therapeutics, which is making the eyebrow-raising claim that fat—human fat—can actually save your life The San Diego-based company extracts stem cells from fatty tissues, then uses those cells to restore weak or damaged tissues.

Cytori has developed a product called Celution that extracts stem cells from the patient. The company then processes the cells and reinjects them into the patient. Cytori is testing the product right now in Japan, and hopes for FDA approval in 2008.

The company is making a big bet that regenerative cells, harvested from the patient's fatty tissue, may have the ability to offer replacement cells to treat life-altering or life-threatening disorders. Cytori says that potential clinical applications include disorders of the nerve, muscle, bone, cartilage, and heart among others.

Cytori trades on the Frankfort Stock Exchange. The stock has slipped from about $8 per share at the beginning of 2006, to $4 per share, but FDA recently approved the company's Celution Cell Concentration System for use as a cell saver device. That should help pave the way for long-term growth for the company.

While stem cell research is still in its infancy, the long-term prognosis for the technology is looking more and more bullish.

So far, the money is headed in the direction of adult stem cell companies, where Wall Street looks at stem cell research as the ultimate ground floor opportunity.

Act accordingly.

Celebrity author and business/finance commentator for CNN and Fox News, Brian O'Connell has written for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, 79 Radcliffe Drive, Doylestown, PA 18901, Tel 215.230.3711, brian.oco@verizon.net

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