08 Dec Researcher wants to commercialize adult stem cell discovery
Wauwatosa, Wis. – Maya Sieber-Blum doesn’t even have a patent and she’s excited about the commercial possibilities of her discovery involving adult stem cells.
Sieber-Blum, a professor of cell biology, neurobiology, and anatomy at the Medical College of Wisconsin, leads a research team that has applied for a patent on its work to isolate, grow, and identify epidermal neural crest stem cells, a new type of adult stem cell that appears to have the potential for diversification.
It’s not that that Sieber-Blum is presumptuous; it’s that she sees so many capabilities and applications for her discovery.
She offered a simple “yes” when asked if she would like to transfer her discovery into a business, and thanks to the MCW Research Foundation, she already knows the approximate size of her market. According to the foundation, the cells would address conditions that affect over 11 million people and are estimated to annually cost more than $170 billion.
The readily-available adult stem cells are found in the bulge of hair follicles, and their potential for cell replacement therapy has Sieber-Blum thinking in terms of entrepreneurialism. “They are easily accessible in the skin,” she stated. “The patients’ own stem cells could be used, which would avoid graft reaction.”
According to Sieber-Blum, the cells represent an embryonic remnant in an adult location – the hairy skin. They can be isolated as a highly pure population of stem cells, and they can be expanded in culture without losing stem cell markers.
When grafted into host mice, they do not form tumors – unlike embryonic stem cells.
In addition, they are multipotent, which means the progeny of one stem cell can give rise to many cell types such as neurons, nerve-supporting cells, smooth muscle cells, and bone and cartilage cells.
The conditions to which they can be applied include several that have been identified as targets of embryonic stem cell research.
Subsets of the cells express markers for the nerve-supporting cells that are essential for proper neuron function. They also may be useful to treat Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Hirschsprung’s disease, stroke, peripheral neuropathies, and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). In addition, specific defects of the heart and bone defects like degeneration and craniofacial birth defects could be treated through neural crest stem cell replacement therapy.
Sieber-Blum’s research team grafted the cells into mice that have spinal cord injuries, and the cells survived and integrated into the spinal cord, remaining at the site of transplantation and, significantly, not forming tumors.
She has identified, isolated, and preliminarily characterized human candidate cells, and soon she will further characterize them and develop culture conditions for them.
The cells have characteristics that combine advantages of embryonic and adult stem cells. Like embryonic stem cells, they have a high degree of plasticity, they can be isolated at high levels of purity, and they can be expanded in culture. They are similar to other types of adult stem cells because they are accessible through a minimally invasive procedure.
Since they could lead to using a patient’s own hair as a source for therapy – in essence making patients their own donors – their discovery could avoid the possibility of tissue incompatibility. Their discovery also might enable researchers to avoid ethical issues related to embryonic stem cell research, including the destruction of human embryos in order to extract stem cells.
The patent application covers the adult stem cells, their isolation, and their use. Given the controversy over embryonic stem cell patents held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which have been challenged in part because some view them as overly broad, Sieber-Blum might not get everything requested in the patent application.
She doesn’t claim to be familiar with the WARF situation, or to be an expert on patent applications. However, she said her group was “keen to produce data with human cells” because funding is available for that purpose. She also noted that when applying for a patent, applicants initially try to cover as much as possible and be prepared to scale down if requested by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Chris Rogers, a patent attorney with the law firm Lathrop & Clark, said her strategy represents a fairly typical general/sub-general (fallback) position. The more claims you make in a patent, the better position you’re in to enforce it, but the more expensive potential litigation becomes, Rogers said.
“This is all about strategy,” he noted. “If you get to trial, you may not know about all the prior art [known technology] all around the world.”
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