The many opportunities for products in the stem cell field: An interview with Michael West, part 2

Author: Paul Krzyzanowski, 10/08/13

This is part two of a series on Michael West. Read part one.

Michael West, CEO of BioTime

Michael West, CEO of BioTime

When most people hear of new applications coming out of stem cell research it’s usually via headline grabbing soon-to-be-products like stem cell derived livers, replacement ears, transplantable retinas, among other potentially useful things. Any one of these applications has the chance of going mainstream within a few years if costs and risks associated with each continue to drop.

And as each new discovery becomes truly productized, a small change quietly occurs; a slice of applied stem cell research transforms into regenerative medicine.

It’s lofty goals like these that capture the imagination of everyone involved in the field, from patients to researchers to investors, yet the reality is that most of the activity (and by extension, the market) touching stem cells happens at the ground level, discovering and producing all of the things needed to enable regenerative medicine.

So while many people associate BioTime with futuristic regenerative medicine treatments, the company’s breadth is larger than most people assume. Among BioTime’s products lie GeneCards, a widely used database of gene-centric information (that’s licensed to non-academic users), and Hextend, a widely used blood plasma expander that’s been been available since at least the late 1990’s. With Hextend, BioTime licenses rights to its production and collects royalties on sales.

In industrial settings, Michael West explained that there’s a balance between near- and long-term commercialization projects, and the need for both to produce revenues. A few products provide BioTime with it’s current bread and butter, while producing some of the more essential infrastructure for stem cell research – cell lines and cell culture media.

A diversity of cells yields a diversity of products

BioTime owns the ACTCellerate line of characterized embryonic progenitor cell lines, of which 140 existed about five years ago. Despite this number, you may not associate ACTCellerate with BioTime since, like Hextend, another company — Millipore — distributes the lines. Licensing is a nice model to follow as a company can focus on the development of new products without dealing with day-to-day manufacturing and distribution. And while BioTime competes with other groups such as STEMCELL Technologies or the UK Stem Cell Bank to supply researchers with cellular products, the diversity of BioTimes’ available lines continues to expand, with West sharing that “[the company] now has 200 embryonic lines with characterized gene expression patterns”.

To me, the emphasis for growing the product line seemed to come at the cost of diversity. It felt counterintuitive to define hundreds of different cell lines when stem cells have the advantage of being pluripotent. Shouldn’t a few dozen cell lines be enough to cover all the major applications of regenerative medicine?

Not so, explained West, as there are many finer gradations of cell types, each with slightly different properties. “I think embryonic progenitors must be matched to their intended application.” For instance West told me that there are three types of cartilage, something I didn’t know.

West also emphasized that induced hepatocytes (iHeps) were another great candidate for productization, as they’re actually more efficient for restoring function than donated livers, which is a nice industrial perspective to go with what I heard about George Daley’s work on iHep differentiation protocols a few months ago.

Yet while BioTime offers a broad range of products, it doesn’t seem like a company that’s wont to pursue a series of isolated products across many diverse markets. Next time, I’m going to look into how BioTime is positioned to grow in a growing regenerative medicine market.

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Paul Krzyzanowski

Paul is a computational biologist and writer living in Toronto. He's been a contributor to Signals for three years, writing articles for the general public about how biotechnology and biomedical research can be used to solve pressing medical problems. Alongside Paul's experience in computational biology,
 bioinformatics, and molecular genetics, he's interested in how academic research develops into real world, commercial technology, and what's needed for the Canadian biotech industry needs to grow. Paul is currently a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. Prior to joining the OICR, he worked at the Ottawa Hospital Research 
Institute and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa, specializing in computational biology. And finally, Paul earned an H.B.Sc. from the University of Toronto a long time ago. Paul's blog can be read at www.checkmatescientist.net
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