By Randall Osborne
West Coast Editor
President Bush¿s decision, made public Thursday night, to allow federally funded research to continue with an estimated 60 embryonic stem cell lines is a step in the right direction, said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
¿Who would have anticipated, six months or four months or even two months ago, that the president would come out this way on the stem cell issue?¿ Feldbaum said Friday. ¿You¿d have had very few takers. Now, we want to work with the administration to move the number [upward].¿
The unlikely winning of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to the cause of stem cell research was among the important changes that may have led to Bush¿s edict, Feldbaum said. Hatch called the decision ¿thoughtful, decent [and] honorable.¿
Feldbaum noted that there is some dispute whether as many as 60 cell lines exist ¿ but little doubt that there will eventually.
¿To be fair about it, the industry does not rely on this research,¿ he said. ¿If there were 200 promising avenues, this would be in the top 15, but it¿s not an avenue that many companies are engaged in at present.¿
The lack of federal funding won¿t stop the research anyway, he added ¿ although, for the next five to seven years, ¿a great deal of it will be done by the National Institutes of Health and through universities.¿
Some academic researchers grumbled in news reports that biotechnology firms¿ ownership of some cell lines might prevent some federally paid experiments under the guidelines, but reaction in the industry was favorable to neutral.
Among the stem cell research firms weighing in with statements about the Bush decree was major player Geron Corp., of Menlo Park, Calif., echoing the general sentiment by saying the company was ¿very pleased.¿ Geron expects to collaborate with some federally funded labs, the company said.
Geron¿s stock (NASDAQ:GERN) dipped Friday, closing at $13.95, down 99 cents.
The mainstream media feasted on reaction, with CNN reaching as far afield as Mary Tyler Moore, who threw her figurative cap in the air over the decision, saying Bush had ¿delved into his heart.¿
Chrystyna Bedrij, chief investment officer with Griffin Securities Inc. in New York, said she would be delving into her pocketbook instead. Stem cell research is going to make it after all, she said.
¿Personally, I¿m going to buy 10 [sets of stem cell research stock],¿ Bedrij told BioWorld Today. ¿This could be another human genome, in terms of the financial market. It¿s such huge potential. I haven¿t seen anything like this in a long time.¿
Bedrij is the author of a June research report on Select Therapeutics Inc. (which does not use embryonic cells, but utilizes adult cells and cord blood cells from born infants), that declares the stem cell field generally due for ¿explosive growth.¿
Select Therapeutics, of Cambridge, Mass., took over Woburn, Mass.-based Cytomatrix Inc., with its devices for making and expanding stem cells. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 31, 2000.)
¿It¿s hard to come up with a competitive environment [for stem cells],¿ but investors will be rewarded by studying the field, Bedrij said.
¿Adult stem cells are probably in a better position now,¿ she added. ¿That¿s where all the publicly traded companies are, except for Geron.¿
Leaders, she said, are Stem Cells Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif.; Curis Inc., of Cambridge, Mass.; and Select.
Aastrom Biosciences Inc., of Ann Arbor, Mich., ¿is playing in [the same area as Select], but it adds growth factors and cytokines,¿ Bedrij said.
Adult stem cell firms are ¿really going to take off now, now that embryonic is crossed out,¿ at least for federal research beyond 60 lines, she said.
Maybe so, but none was taking off Friday, possibly because of being tainted by the general stem cell media attention. Also, the stocks had gained in advance of the announcement. StemCells (NASDAQ:STEM) ended the day at $4.84, down $1.61, or 25 percent. Curis (NASDAQ:CRIS) closed at $6.11, down 64 cents, or 9.5 percent. Select (AMEX:XZL) ended at $2.10, down 15 cents, or 6.7 percent.
Aastrom (NASDAQ:ASTM), which issued a statement saying the issue of federal support for embryonic research has no direct impact on its programs, closed at $1.82, down 43 cents, or about 19 percent.
One particularly discordant note sounded against the Bush decision on embryonic stem cells came from the Alliance for Aging Research, which issued a statement saying Bush had ¿failed the leadership test¿ by embracing ¿a too limited approach to the potential of human embryonic stem cell research.¿
Daniel Perry, executive director of the group, said Bush ¿cast a shadow on the hopes of patients and the promise of science,¿ failing to act in accordance with others who understand ¿that a pro-life ethic includes making life better for the living. Americans who are suffering from the devastating effects of diseases like diabetes, Parkinson¿s and spinal cord injuries will have their waiting periods cruelly extended.¿
Feldbaum called Perry¿s group ¿a terrific organization,¿ adding that ¿they¿ve been allies of ours. It¿s the patient groups that are the proper leaders of this charge, backed by facts supplied by the industry.¿
BIO, however, aims to focus not on the number of 60 cell lines allowed for federally funded work, but on edging it toward something more reasonable as time goes on, Feldbaum said.
¿We¿re taking a real politic view of this,¿ he said.