For more than a decade, Geron has been a pillar of human embryonic stem cell research. They were the first to embark on embryonic stem cell trials, with a treatment for patients with spinal cord injury last year. They also have the distinction of having funded the research that isolated the first human embryonic stem cells, way back in 1998. But the company has just announced that they will be shuttering the stem cell portion of their operation.
Their spinal cord trial to assess whether a low dose of cells in a newly injured spine is safe, which had enrolled four patients, had been progressing as expected, so it’s not that they’ve lost faith in the science. It’s all about the money: Geron has two cancer drugs in clinical trials, and according to their announcement, this was the only way to continue supporting that research without having to raise more funds. They’ll be laying off 38% of their employees as a result of the decision. The four patients will continue to be monitored.
No one ever said stem cells would be cheap, or easy. But scientists weighing in on the announcement to various media outlets have pointed out that Geron had particularly ambitious goals without a terribly clear way to prove that their treatment was working (what’s called, in clinical trials-ese, an “endpoint”): “Many experts were surprised when they selected spinal cord injury. We knew it was going to be very difficult to show a biological effect,” Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Therapy, which also has a current embryonic stem cell trial, told New Scientist.
All the same, it’s a real disappointment for many who were watching human embryonic stem cell treatments. “I’m disgusted. It makes me sick,” Daniel Heumann, who is on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, said to the Washington Post. “To get people’s hopes up and then do this for financial reasons is despicable. They’re treating us like lab rats.”