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Format: 04/24/2014
Format: 04/24/2014


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Stemnion uses placentas, not embryos, to get stem cells for burn therapy

Friday, September 25th, 2009

By Timothy Puko and Allison M. Heinrichs


Healing is a long and painful process for burn patients, who endure months of skin grafting and the possibility of life-threatening infections with no guarantees for success.

Scientists at Stemnion, an Oakland startup, say they have a solution for burns and other wounds: They're developing cutting-edge stem cell treatments, but without the ethical dilemma of destroying embryos.

"We see this as a product that can extend beyond burns into all types of wounds," said William Golden, executive chairman. "It'll be revolutionary regenerative medicine."

Stemnion is moving quickly toward federal approvals, which could make it the first company to sell stem cell treatments without using human embryos. As the company has moved into human testing, government leaders have provided more than $3 million of public money for its expansion, hoping the groundbreaking science leads to big business for Pittsburgh.

"I think it's limitless," Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato said. "You can't even imagine how big it will get if their technology takes off."

Stemnion was formed in January 2004, a time of great public debate about emerging stem cell treatments and the ethical controversies surrounding them. The company has tried to become an industry leader by using placental stem cells rather than those from embryos.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research say harvesting and dissecting the clusters of cells essentially destroys human life. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in June 2008 terming it immoral, deliberate killing.

To avoid this controversy, Stephen Strom worked to find a different kind of stem cell. A professor of cellular and molecular pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, Strom developed the process of locating and extracting stem cells from placentas several years ago and shared it with Stemnion.

"My lab was looking at alternative stem cells, and we were trying to identify renewable and what was perceived by some as a more ethical source," Strom said.

The company obtains its stem cells from placentas of full-term newborns born at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. Placentas, usually discarded after births, are a rich source of stem cells that can be coaxed to accelerate healing by simply being sprinkled onto a wound, Strom said.

Scientists are working to make stem cells catalyze the growth of more specialized tissues, by draping them on biodegradable frameworks in the shape of tissues and organs.

Confidence in morality

Stemnion is so confident in the morality of its process that it hosted Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese Bishop David A. Zubik and his predecessor, Archbishop Donald Wuerl, for informational meetings. Researchers explained that Stemnion works with only adult stem cells, which is within the church's ethical guidelines, said Susan Rauscher, who accompanied the bishops there when she was the diocese's secretary of social concerns.

By being first to corner this market in a way that opens stem cell treatment to millions who might be offended by embryonic stem cell use, the company could become an industry giant, government officials said. Allegheny County, the state and the federal government awarded $3.65 million in grants and loans to the company during the past 18 months.

The emerging technology is of special interest to the military because medical advances are allowing troops to survive injuries that previously would have been fatal, officials said. U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, sponsored a $1.2 million earmark, the largest of Stemnion's government awards, to help it develop rapid healing technologies with the Department of Defense.

The government money will be used for research and to build a clean room, which could cost $1 million, Golden told the county's Community Infrastructure and Tourism Board in June when it approved a $250,000 grant. The room is needed to keep cells sterile for human clinical trials with second-degree burn patients.

Stemnion is in a "phase II" trial seeking to enroll 99 patients at 14 locations, including West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, according to information filed with the National Institutes of Health. Phase II clinical trials assess the safety and best dosage of a medical treatment or drug. The next step would be a clinical trial enrolling hundreds, possibly thousands, of patients to gather data to commercialize the product.

Long odds

The odds of moving from concept to commercialization are less than 1 in 5,000, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which advocates for drug companies. Dr. Stanton Gerson, director of the Center for Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said he doesn't know of another company with a product similar to Stemnion's that has moved to a phase II clinical trial.

Government officials believe Stemnion could help make Pittsburgh an international center for developing and manufacturing the technology. It could create thousands of well-paying jobs, said state Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.

To read more, visit the Tribune-Review web site.

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