- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

BOSTON | Several Massachusetts firms are forging ahead with ambitious stem-cell research plans, circumventing the heated debate over embryonic research by using other, less-controversial methods.

Biocell Center, a European technology firm, has opened the first amniotic-fluid stem-cell bank in the United States in Medford, Mass., near Boston. Another Boston-area biotech firm, Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., uses a nondestructive technique that involves working with a single cell from an embryo in a project aimed at preventing blindness.

Massachusetts, which has one of the nation’s best-educated work forces, has been at the center of stem-cell research since Gov. Deval Patrick’s recent $1 billion, 10-year Life Sciences Initiative, which was intended to make the state a world leader in the field. One of its first successes was the Biocell Center project, which plans to provide cryogenic storage of stem cells for families, medical centers and scientists.

“This builds on our strength - a concentration of brainpower, research, hospitals and other institutions, venture capital and imagination,” Mr. Patrick said. “The [biotechnology] cluster is helping to lead Massachusetts out of this recession and give hope to people who are suffering.”

Perhaps more significant, the Biocell Center avoids the moral controversy triggered by embryonic stem-cell research. The company harvests and stores stem cells from the amniotic fluid surrounding an unborn child in the uterus, a process that does not interfere with the fetus itself.

“The [stem-cell] controversy involves embryonic stem cells, and we are working with non-embryonic, so we are out of that debate,” said Kate Torchilin, Biocell’s chief executive officer.

The company, which has built a large stem-cell bank in Europe, collects samples only from women who undergo amniocentesis, a prenatal procedure that requires the removal of a small amount of amniotic fluid to test for specific birth defects. A sample from the extracted fluid, which is normally discarded, goes to Biocell for isolation and storage if the mother requests it.

The preserved cells can potentially be used in the future to repair tissue or treat diseases. Because they are from the individual’s own amniotic fluid, the risk of rejection by the body is minimized.

“Stem cells are present and powerful in the second trimester of pregnancy, and we have a chance to collect a sample without interfering with the normal course of clinical care,” Ms. Torchilin said.

Amniotic-fluid stem cells underscore the advances in so-called “ethical” stem cells, which hold the potential to revolutionize medical treatment without being contentious. Yet reports of progress in this area tend to stay out of the spotlight.

Massachusetts already has several storage facilities for stem cells derived from umbilical-cord blood, which offer a natural, controversy-free method of acquiring stem cells, said Lucy Bayer-Zwirello, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston.

Advanced Cell Technology is currently applying to the Food and Drug Administration to start human trials to prevent blindness with a single stem cell taken from an embryo without harming it. The company is targeting macular degeneration and has had complete success in animal trials, said Robert Lanza, ACT’s chief scientific officer.

“We took one cell and let the remaining embryo develop with no harm,” Mr. Lanza said. “We know how to routinely generate stem-cell lines without harming or destroying the embryos.

“This may be the first human embryonic stem-cell therapy in patients, ever,” Mr. Lanza said. “We desperately need big clinical success.”

Stem cells hold the potential to become a repair kit for the human body, as well as a way to treat a long list of debilitating diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease.

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