San Diego Makes Stem Cells a Rallying Cry for New Era in Life Sciences

Xconomy San Diego — 

It has been seven years since the Bush Administration restricted federal funding on human embryonic stem cells, and four years since California voters responded by passing Proposition 71. The initiative jump-started stem cell research here by providing $3 billion in state funding for “regenerative medicine” over the next decade.

Since then, the term “stem cells” has become a rallying cry in San Diego for a new wave of industrial development in the life sciences.

So as several hundred biomedical researchers and others gathered Friday for San Diego’s third annual “Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa,” a sense of expectation, anticipation, and even germination filled the air. “We’re talking about the dawn of a new era in how we replace hearts and kidneys, muscle and liver,” says Babak Esmaeli-Azad, president of privately held DNAmicroarray in San Diego.

While it is not yet clear exactly how stem cell research can be commercialized, Esmaeli-Azad and others already have moved to provide research tools—the so-called shovels and blue jeans—to the scientists panning for gold.

DNAmicroarray provides proprietary systems for controlling the differentiation of human stem cells. But Esmaeli-Azad says he also has personally invested $2 million on internal stem cell research for potential therapies.

“We did not do any stem cell business three years ago,” Esmaeli-Azad says. But now, with a new U.S. president preparing to take office and state funding flowing from Prop 71 through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Esmaeli-Azad says he expects some big changes in the field. “So I am here as a very interested and excited stem cell researcher, but also as a very cautious businessman,” Esmaeli-Azad said.

The one-day forum at the Salk Institute was coordinated by the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, an umbrella organization that includes stem cell researchers from Salk, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, The Scripps Research Institute and UC San Diego. The consortium happily renamed itself in September, after announcing a $30 million donation from South Dakota philanthropist T. Denny Sanford. Sanford’s funding has been combined with a $43 million grant in Prop 71 funding to build a four-story facility on North Torrey Pines Mesa for research in regenerative medicine. The new research center is expected to open by 2010, with groundbreaking set to begin this January.

Funding from Prop 71 also is expected to be available to biotech startups in the form of loans early next year to support the commercialization of stem cell research, said Floyd Bloom, a neuroscientist and professor emeritus at The Scripps Research Institute. “Venture capital at the moment doesn’t happen to believe that stem cells are going to be a viable business, so we think the loan program will really help move the commercialization process along,” said Bloom, who sits on a citizens committee overseeing the allocation of Prop 71 funds.

Sponsors of the conference range from established behemoths such as Invitrogen, the Carlsbad maker of laboratory research tools, to San Diego startup Histogen and Boston, MA-based Stemgent, which have also targeted stem cell researchers.

Histogen, founded last year, provides a human extra-cellular matrix that can be used to grow stem cell lines. Stemgent, founded earlier this year, has almost 40 employees in Boston and San Diego developing specialized antibody panels, cytokine kits, and other research tools.

Duane Roth, the chief executive of Connect (and a San Diego Xconomist), says this year’s Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa was organized to focus on research in four specific areas: heart disease, neurodegenerative disease, diabetes, and cancer.

A keynote presentation by Harvard’s Kenneth Chien, for example, outlined recent progress in identifying the primogenitor heart cells and the myriad ways in which they differentiate into different types of heart cells. He also showed how it may someday be possible to use stem cells to grow new heart tissue on a thin film membrane that could be used as a graft to repair damaged heart tissue.

Like many others, Roth is encouraged by San Diego’s progress so far. As he put it, “We’re a lot farther along than we thought we’d be.”