Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Age of Biotech?



My last post was about the Green Revolution and how it will transform the future of our planet.

Another equally important revolution will be the biotech revolution which has been taking shape over the last few years, growing at breathtaking speed.

A friend sent me the video above discussing a potential cure for Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Recent research by Dr. Mark Mannie of East Carolina's University's Department of Microbiology and Immunology has led to a potential vaccine for Multiple Sclerosis.

This same research could also lead to vaccines for other autoimmune diseases. Click on the video above to watch the discussion on this new vaccine called FP88.

Now, I have been around long enough to know that just because something works on an animal, it does not mean that it will work on humans. I have seen many things work on the animal model of MS but eventually fail on humans.

But the new technologies are much more specific in treating a whole host of diseases and I am confident that "cures" will be found in the next decade covering many chronic conditions.

Why am I so confident? It's not just a gut feeling. When I talk to my doctors, they are amazed at all the research I find on Multiple Sclerosis and the number of potential treatments that are currently being investigated.

I also believe in Adam Smith's wisdom in the often quoted passage from the Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, brewer or baker that we expect our dinner, but from the regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

It is profits that eventually drive biotech companies and pharmaceuticals to discover new drugs. Unfortunately, as my brother and father (both physicians) often remind me, big pharma has not discovered anything meaningful in years. They have become sales distribution centers and they grow by acquiring biotechs or by helping them promote their new drugs.

But let there be no doubt about it: no credit crunch will stop the biotech revolution. Look at this article from Australia that appeared over the weekend discussing medecine's holy grail:

THE world stands on the brink of a medical revolution. Within months, the first human tests using embryonic stem cell therapy will be carried out in Australia and the US.

Embryonic stem cell research is about to fulfil its promise and at the heart of this research is former Melbourne scientist Alan Trounson, a world-renowned biologist.

Prof Trounson has pioneered the use of stem cells in medicine and, in doing so, has made Victoria a world leader in the technology.

Now the president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine based in San Francisco, he has returned to address the AusBiotech 2008 conference in Melbourne today.

In his only interview while in Australia, he told the Sunday Herald Sun: "We are on the front edge of a medical revolution and Victoria has moved up in the frontline.''

Prof Trounson, 62, left Victoria last year for California. Today he will announce the trials at the conference.

"The world is incredibly optimistic about the use of stem cells, embryonic or other,'' he said.
"There will be treatments, there will be cures. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.''

The stem cell pioneer said the controversial therapy - because cells come from discarded embryos - was ready to prove its potential.

"There have been tremendous clinical advances using human embryonic stem cell therapy,'' Prof Trounson said.

"Things are moving very quickly.''

He said scientists working with US biotech company Geron would begin human clinical trials within months following the success of testing the therapy on rats with injured spinal cords.

It will be the first time human embryonic stem cell therapy has been tested on patients.

Geron had to provide the US Food and Drug Administration with 25,000 pages of data to prove the treatment would not harm humans, and that hundreds of rats injected with the cells did not develop tumours or other side effects for up to a year.

Prof Trounson said such precautions were appropriate. He said more human clinical trials were also imminent.

They included testing the ability of human embryonic stem cells to repair damage to the retina causing blindness and, within two years, overcoming diabetes by using the cells to mature into pancreas cells to produce insulin.

Prof Trounson said Victorian patients would be involved in the diabetes clinical trials.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any cell in the body.

A decade ago US scientist James Thomson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison helped develop the technique to isolate these cells, but the stumbling block - until now - has been coaxing the cells to mature into specific cell types.

The promise that has tantalised scientists worldwide, in particular Prof Trounson, is that human embryonic stem cells can be tailor-made to treat a range of diseases and illnesses.

But this will be safe in humans only when the cells will mature into the required type. The concern is that a few rogue cells could form a tumour.

The recent developments will put the international spotlight on US scientists, but Prof Trounson said Victoria was not lagging behind.

"The Victorian Government has created a partnership with the frontline Americans and that connection is fabulous,'' he said.

"It means Victorian scientists will work with topline Californian scientists and their biotech associates.

"It will be a morale booster for Australian science.''

Recently Victoria became the first region outside the US to enter into a partnership with the Californian institute. Prof Trounson helped influence that collaboration with the support of Premier John Brumby.

It was a wise move. The institute provides the world's biggest source of funding for human embryonic stem cell research, with a budget of more than $3 billion.

It does not do the research, but identifies and finances scientific teams with potential.

In the US Prof Trounson is dubbed the ``sugar daddy'' of stem cell research, because he comes up with the cash.

So a man who made his name internationally as a pioneer of reproductive medicine alongside some great Victorians, including Carl Wood and John Leeton, now sits on the other side of the fence.

"It is different,'' he said. "At times I wish I was a scientist. Some of the great times I've had will always be there, but this is an exciting business.''

He talks with pride about the institute's role in helping to take one discovery from the laboratory to early testing within 18 months.

"There is a myeloprolific condition that ends up multiplying red blood cells and becoming a preliminary to developing leukemia,'' he said.

"The scientists were able to block that using a human embryonic stem cell drug and it is now in early trials.''

Prof Trounson hopes that a recent Victorian application for a collaborative research grant to the institute will be as successful.

Canada and the UK have formed partnerships with the Californian institute recently.

But a partnership is unlikely between Prof Trounson's institute and the Australian Stem Cell Centre he helped establish in Melbourne in 2002.

Then, Victoria was considered a world leader in human embryonic stem cell research and Prof Trounson its rising star. He resigned from the centre in 2006, unhappy with the direction it was taking.

Some colleagues say that since he left, the wheels have fallen off.

The centre was set up with a Federal Government grant of $43 million. On Friday its future was in doubt when a critical government review found that, instead of collaborating, some researchers were competing with each other, while others were in open opposition.

The centre's board resigned after the chief executive, Stephen Livesey, was sacked while on holiday.

In December last year Prof Trounson became the the latest top Australian stem cell scientist to be lured to the US.

The exodus included Martin Pera and Dianna DeVore, who had worked at the Australian centre, and Paul Simmons, who was based at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne.

The announcement of Prof Trounson's appointment to head the Californian institute was tarnished by allegations of fraud against a scientist at the Monash University laboratory Prof Trounson had run in Melbourne.

Prof Trounson was cleared of any wrongdoing, but it left a cloud over what should have been a career highlight.

He harbours no ill-feelings and said he was not hounded out of Victoria.

"There were people at Monash University who were not very supportive, others who were. That's always the situation when you are doing things hard.''

Prof Trounson said he was disappointed the Australian centre went off track, but its management had ignored scientists' input.

"There was a tough report on performance and they blamed one another and then resigned,'' Prof Trounson said.

"They are trying to reconstitute it, but I do not know how successful it will be.

"Australian scientists are very dubious about it because they pretty much got left out of it. They were treated shabbily. Now Australian stem cell scientists are not performing anywhere near the top.

"Australia didn't get the accelerant it should have and the ASCC has to take some of the responsibility.''

As guest speaker at the AusBiotech 2008 conference this week, Prof Trounson will discuss worldwide optimism, pending human clinical trials and the potential of stem cell therapy.

"It is encouraging,'' he said.

He is also helping his son, Karl, 16, prepare for his VCE exams.

Wife, Karin Hammarberg, Karl and youngest son Alex, 7, remained in Melbourne this year to allow Karl to finish high school.

The family will join Prof Trounson in San Francisco next month.

"I love the can-do attitude of Californians and you never see the tall poppy syndrome,'' he said.

THE BEGINING

Early 1990s: US scientist Dr James Thomson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison helps discover how to isolate embryonic stem cells from monkeys.

1995: US biotech company Geron investigates whether embryonic stem cells can repair spinal injuries.

1998: Thomson develops a technique to isolate embryonic stem cells and grow them from human embryos.

1999: Early research is funded by private money as governments debate social, ethical, legal and moral implications.

There is much opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells because, typically, they come from embryos created in laboratories and at four or five days old are microscopic balls of cells. Opponents argue all embryos have the potential to become a human.

2000: Melbourne's Alan Trounson becomes a founding father of embryonic stem cell research. He discovers that nerve stem cells can be derived from embryonic stem cells and can be directed into prostate tissue and respiratory tissue.

2002: The IVF pioneer uses his extensive knowledge of assisted reproductive technologies to explore the possibility of generating embryonic stem cells. Trounson helps lead an international medical research revolution.

2004: There have been 132 scientific papers published internationally about research into the potential use of human embryonic stem cells.

2005: Geron reports a study it has financed shows the treatment could help paralysed rats walk.

2006: Dr Kuldip Sidhu (right), from Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, predicts major progress when the hospital receives a licence to use embryonic stem cell research to find a cure for diabetes.

A Roy Morgan survey finds 82 per cent of Australians approve of the extraction of stem cells from human embryos so they can be used in the treatment of diseases and injuries such as heart disease and Alzheimer's.

2007: The University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US reports there is hope that either adult or embryonic stem cell derivatives may be capable of repairing injured heart muscle.

2007: Dr Thomson and a Japanese team show a way of genetically reprogramming adult skin cells to act like stem cells, including the ability to form any of the body's tissues.

These are called induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS) and may solve the ethical dilemma of using embryos for research.

2008: Stanford University scientists report they have used embryonic stem cells to help stroke-disabled lab rats walk better.

TYPES: Scientists are now investigating the potential of three kinds of stem cells: embryonic stem cells, adult stems cells and IPS stem cells.


THE FUTURE


SPINAL INJURIES

In May, US biotech company Geron was told by the Food and Drug Administration to hold its human clinical trial while it studied how best to regulate stem cell-based therapies.

The Scientist reported the trial could start within three months.

A world-first, it will test whether it is safe to inject nerve cells into the site of a spinal cord injury.


BLINDNESS

Los Angeles-based Advanced Cell Technology reported it also expects to gain FDA approval within months to test people with an eye treatment made from human embryonic stem cells.

Chief executive William Caldwell said the company hoped to treat eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.


TYPE 1 DIABETES

Scientists have made progress transforming embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing cells. Geron reported in 2007 that human embryonic stem cells could be transformed into the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, offering the potential to treat diabetes.

On Thursday Cellartis, which specialises in human embryonic stem cells, announced a collaboration with Danish drug maker Novo Nordisk to program stem cells to turn into insulin-producing beta cells that can be used for the treatment of diabetes.


HEART DISEASE


In June, researchers at the Children's Hospital in Boston discovered a new group of stem cells that give rise to cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells, which could help regenerate injured heart tissue.

Geron also reports it is considering using human embryonic stem cells to help people suffering from heart attacks, osteoporosis and liver disease.


PARKINSON'S DISEASE

Because the disease results from the loss of one specific type of nerve cell, stem cells have great potential.

Treatments may include replacing destroyed dopamine-secreting neurons in the brain of a Parkinson's patient.

LEUKEMIA

The May issue of the science journal Nature reported stem cell researchers at UCLA have identified a type of leukemia stem cell and uncovered the molecular and genetic mechanisms that cause normal blood stem cells to become cancerous.

The team hopes to interrupt the process that causes the blood stem cells to become leukemia stem cells.


PROSTATE

US scientists have grown new prostate glands in mice. Nature reported the team were able to isolate single cells with the ability to generate an entire prostate.


DRUG TESTING

Embryonic stem cells may be used to understand basic biology and to evaluate the safety and efficacy of new medicines without the need to use humans as guinea pigs.


I am very optimistic about the future of medicine and scientific discoveries. It is, however, a sector that is exceedingly difficult to predict because one new discovery or deaths of patients in clinical trials or after drug approval can render a blockbuster drug obsolete in no time.

I suggest you familiarize yourself with biotech ETFs and see if there are any of them that you are comfortable with.

The problem with picking individual stocks in biotech is that you need to be ready for lots of volatility (even the ETFs are very volatile). If you still want to look into individual stocks, check out Sectoral Asset Management's portfolio on MFFAIS for ideas.

These are exciting times and there is a great deal for biotech companies to be optimistic about - assuming they can survive the economic depression.

Finally, no matter what state of health you are in, I urge you to read Ashton Embry's MS - Best Bet Treatment and think about exercise and your dietary habits.

In particular, along with moderate exercise and a healthy Mediterranean diet, you should increase your intake of vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids.

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