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Bush s Stem-Cell Decision May Proffer Mixed Future for Genomic Programs

NEW YORK, Aug. 10 – President Bush’s decision Thursday night to approve federal funding for certain stem-cell research may open the door for more alliances between genomics companies or academic research groups and stem-cell research centers, industry officials and analysts said.

At the same time, the president’s announcement, which authorizes the National Institutes of Health to underwrite research that uses only what he claimed to be roughly 60 lines of somatic cells currently available, would put severe limits on genomic research that those partnerships plan to pursue, they added.

The president's proposal would take effect almost immediately. At an NIH news conference in Bethesda, Md., on Friday, Tommy Thompson, the Health and Human Services secretary, said that his agency would begin funding research conducted on the existing cell lines in the new year. 

Charles Duncan, an analyst with Dresdner, Kleinwort and Wasserstein who covers the genomics industry, told GenomeWeb that Bush's order will have little impact on the growth of genomics companies in the short term. But he did suggest it might stymie the efforts of the handful of genomic labs that either have struck alliances to pursue stem-cell research or those who plan to.

Companies that have already forged these partnerships include MetriGenix and Neuralstem, who announced their alliance this week to co-develop a series of neurochips as low-density oligonucleotide microarrays for researchers studying various central nervous system disorders. 

Both companies said they expect the market for these and other custom, inexpensive microarrays to increase exponentially into the billions of dollars during the next decade.  MetriGenix, which was spun off from Gene Logic in July to stake an early position in the microarray market and capitalize on its Flow-thru technology chip, already is planning to develop similar custom microarrays for proteomics and cardiovascular researchers, MetriGenix President and CEO Drew O’Beirne said in a recent interview.

Bush’s order might make it more cumbersome and costly for Neuralstem to harvest its nerve cells from fetal stem cells. So far, obtaining the fetal stem cells has not been a problem, said a Neuralstem executive.

O’Beirne conceded that stem-cell issues did not influence his company’s decision to partner with Neuralstem, saying that MetriGenix is in the business of assisting drug-discovery companies and those aiming to improve patient care.  

Another alliance, this one signed in June 2000, brought together Geron Corp. and Celera Genomics, which hopes to use Geron’s experience in human pluripotent stem-cell biology. Under that deal, Geron gains rights to develop a certain number of small-molecule drugs while Celera gets to use data gleaned from the collaboration to enhance its annotation of the human genome and develop and commercialize probe sets to analyze gene expression.

At the time of the alliance, Celera said the partnership would enable it to better understand the most basic form of human cells that contain a diverse set of genes not expressed in high abundance in other cells.

In a statement released on Friday, Geron said it “welcomes” Bush’s decision, remarking that it will “contribute to the rapid advancement of this important field.” This opinion differed with the one floated by the Biotechnology Industry Association, the industry trade group, which cautioned that the president’s action “may place roadblocks to medical progress.”

For many genomics companies and research centers, an understanding of pluripotent stem cells will become essential as more and more of them expand their interest and sidle up to researchers seeking to develop diagnostic and therapeutic products, insiders contend.

As a Neuralstem executive said, pharmaceutical companies have been looking at 500 common drug targets for the last 30 years. By comparison, stem-cell research—especially neural stem-cell research—presents potentially 5,000 new drug targets, she said.

In its statement, BIO said that it supported the president’s decision, calling it a “good, clear, balanced outcome.” The group also sided with researchers who believe that the limit on the number of cell lines cleared for federal funding might hamper the progress of stem-cell discovery efforts.

“Placing a limit on the number of cell lines available for this research may place roadblocks to medical progress, some of which may take years to overcome,” the industry trade group said.

Todd Zwillich in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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