It is a real possibility that the future of our health and longevity exists in certain cells in our own bodies-stem cells, the cells that reside in our blood, skin and bone marrow. These cells can divide and transform themselves into a number of different cell types when given the right biochemical signals.
Under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, stem cells can be induced to become cells with special functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Stem cells are vital to us for many reasons. In developing tissue, stem cells give rise to the many different cell types that make up the heart, lung, skin, and other tissues. Adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury or disease.
Stem cells offer keys to break-through cellular therapy without the controversy of embryonic research that has sparked intense political debate across the country. Stem cells harvested from adult bone marrow, as well as umbilical cord blood immediately following childbirth, are a rich source of life-saving treatments.
These cellular therapies are on the verge of providing major breakthroughs in many diseases. Most cells in human bodies are limited to serving highly specific purposes. Stem cells, however, have far wider opportunities. Stem cell-derived treatments are being developed to treat such diseases as brain cancer, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. In the future, stem cells may also be used for screening new drugs and toxins and understanding birth defects.
Today cellular therapy is an enormous field with absolutely global impact. We now are beginning to understand cellular technology and confront the opportunity to build a whole new segment of the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. Companies that develop the leading new cellular therapies will be amply rewarded.
In addition, the regeneration of damaged organs through stem cell applications is also a very real possibility in the near future. Recently, a team of cardiologists at the Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., injected stem cells collected from a teenager into his own bloodstream in a quest for limiting and regenerating damage caused by a heart attack he experienced following surgery. This marked a step in the quest for “regenerative medicine,” in which body parts may be rebuilt using stem cells.
Very early on, Tullis-Dickerson believed that human cell research-specifically involving stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cords-was moving us way ahead of traditional science. What we can draw from our own bodies may have the capacity for regenerating lost or damaged cells without presenting the body with a foreign “chemical” treatment. We are hopeful that fewer side effects may be seen with cellular therapy than with traditional drug therapies.
As the founder of Tullis-Dickerson, a biotechnology-focused, early-stage venture capital firm, I and my partners have made it a goal to help cellular therapy researchers build successful applications-and strong companies-that enable people to lead longer, better and healthier lives. Our quest is to identify and support promising stem cell therapy technology, and that quest has taken us across the country to research labs and universities, as well as across the globe, building a broad network of researchers, academics and investment funds to grow these technologies from seed-stage.
We have been a large investor in (and sit on the board of) ViaCell Inc., a biotechnology firm that uses umbilical cord blood preservation technology to treat many human diseases such as cancer, genetic diseases, immune deficiencies and neurological diseases. ViaCell developed a patented stem cell expansion technology to selectively increase targeted stem cell populations in umbilical cord blood in the hopes of increasing the available quantities of these unique therapies.
This technology is called Selective Amplification. In December 2001, ViaCell received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to initiate a clinical trial using the stem cell populations derived from Selective Amplification. Additionally, ViaCell operates the ViaCord division, which offers comprehensive umbilical cord blood stem cell banking services to new parents, providing them with the opportunity to preserve their newborn’s umbilical cord blood stem cells for future potential use within their family.
Tullis-Dickerson continues to pursue other cellular therapy investment opportunities across the globe in our quest to extend patients’ lives through cellular therapy.
Jim Tullis is the founder of Tullis-Dickerson, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on biototechnology, medical devices and health care information technology. The firm is headquartered in Greenwich, Conn.