U stem cell rights purchased

Dan Haugen

Cleveland-based biotechnology company Athersys Inc. announced Wednesday it has purchased exclusive commercial rights to adult stem cell technology discovered at the University’s Stem Cell Institute.

Stem cells are cells that have not yet been specialized into specific tissue types. Scientists believe by learning to manipulate them, they could make the cells invaluable for treating a variety of diseases.

A major source of stem cells is embryos but political opposition from conservative anti-abortion activists has limited their availability in recent years, especially for researchers who receive government funding.

That made the Stem Cell Institute’s discovery all the more significant when it was unveiled last summer. Led by Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, University researchers extracted a type of stem cell from adult bone marrow that behaves in ways similar to embryonic stem cells.

Though Verfaillie warned the two cell types were not identical and that research should be aggressively continued on adult and embryonic stem cells, the bone marrow-derived cells were touted by some as a way for researchers to stay on the scientific frontier while avoiding ethical issues associated with embryo use.

University researchers will now work side-by-side with Athersys staff, using the adult stem cells to develop clinical treatments for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and muscular dystrophy.

Exact terms of the agreement have not been released, but Athersys’ chief executive, Gil Van Bokkelen, told The New York Times the University is receiving an upfront payment, a stake in the company and possibly future payments and royalties.

“Dr. Verfaillie’s research provides a platform with extraordinary potential,” Van Bokkelen said. “Our long-term goal is to unlock the mechanisms responsible for the differentiation of stem cells. Only then can we maximize the wide range of therapeutic utility offered by this unique technology platform.”

The adult stem cells will still be made available to other researchers for academic purposes. But Athersys will retain rights over any commercial uses derived from that research as well.

Dr. Verfaillie was traveling and unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Dan Haugen welcomes comments at [email protected]