Rats walk but money waits
Paralyzed rat treatment points up stem cell break-through, but sales remain elusive.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Paralyzed rats are walking again, thanks to a new stem cell treatment; that's big news for the medical community ... and a 10-year wait for anybody wanting to make a buck off it.
Dr. Douglas Kerr, assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, used experimental stem cell technology to successfully repair lab rats' damaged spines, restoring mobility to their legs.
If scientists are able to repeat this success in humans, stem cells could eventually be used to help paralyzed patients walk again, even in cases where spinal cords are severed by motorcycle accidents, sports injuries or war wounds. Kerr's experiment gives hope to a broad range of therapies for the rebuilding of kneecaps, brain cells, and even the pancreas in diabetics. Stem cells are being considered as treatments for multiple sclerosis and brain damage, and diseases like Lou Gehrig's, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Geron Corp. (down $0.13 to $6.25, Charts), StemCells Inc. (down $0.03 to $1.94, Charts), Aastrom Biosciences Inc. (down $0.05 to $1.18, Charts) and ViaCell, Inc. (down $0.10 to $4.28, Charts) are some of the lead biotechs in stem cell research, but analysts say that it's going to take years before they're able to turn recent breakthroughs into revenue.
"People get excited when there are scientific advancements like this, and you need that excitement to get investors interested in companies like these," said Ben Weintraub, analyst for Noble Financial Group. "But they need to understand that translating an advance like that from preclinical study into human medicine is a process that takes at least 10 years."
The money-making question for analysts is not just when, but how. Stem cell companies are not like Big Pharma, or even other biotechs, that make and sell drugs. These companies would probably use their technology in conjunction with a patient's own cells in order to treat them.
"The other important thing that investors need to realize is that the business model for stem cell companies is still a bit of an enigma," said Weintraub. "The business model of selling someone their own cells is still uncertain. It's not like a drug that you can sell someone for $40,000 a year."
StemCells is working on "off the shelf" stem cells that could be stored and sold to patients, said Weintraub. "That's a little bit clearer business model [compared to its competitors,] but the worry is that someone else's cells off the shelf are not going to be as good as your own," he said.
Steve Brozak, analyst for WBB Securities, said that Geron is the strongest company in the stem cell business because it has done the best job of protecting its developments through patents. But there's also the issue of international competitiveness. Brozak is concerned that American companies haven't done enough to research these emerging technologies and will soon be swept under by foreign competitors, who could be making discoveries unknown to us.
"The one thing we have to fear is what's going on overseas," said Brozak. "While the U.S. companies are sleeping, what [international] private or state enterprises are advancing stem cell research?"
But stem cell research, along with the overall abortion debate, is a controversial subject in the United States. This friction often surfaces in questions of federal funding. That, analysts argue, puts U.S. research efforts at a disadvantage to overseas competition.
Brozak said the U.S. government's lack of enthusiasm in getting up to speed with stem cell technologies isn't doing any favors for patients or biotechs.
"You tell me how long it takes the FDA to figure out what it's doing and you tell me how long it takes the politicians to get some spinal development," said Brozak.
Brozak does not own shares of Geron stock, but WBB does share a banking relationship with them.
Related: Frist on stem cells