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Cambrex Licenses Telomerase-Immortalized Human Cells from Geron for Drug Discovery


Scientists wishing to use telomerase-immortalized cell lines for biological research, including applications such as drug screening and toxicity tests, can now obtain them through drug-discovery product and services firm Cambrex via a non-exclusive, worldwide licensing pact with Geron that the companies signed last week.

Under the terms of the agreement, Cambrex Bio Science Walkersville, a subsidiary of Cambrex, will develop and distribute cell lines that have been immortalized using Geron’s patented telomerase technology.

In addition to the cell lines, the Cambrex subsidiary will develop associated products such as culture media, and will sell the products to researchers.

Cambrex also has the right to use the telomerized cells for custom drug-screening services, and said it may study the use of telomerized cells for biomanufacturing. Consequently, it has approved an option to license use of telomerase from Geron for such purposes.

“Our Walkersville facility is the worldwide headquarters for bioproducts, so it made sense for them to do the actual licensing,” Anne Marie Hess, Cambrex’s director of investor relations and corporate communications, told Inside Bioassays last week.

Geron, based in Menlo Park, Calif., will receive an upfront license and royalties based on product sales. Further financial details of the agreement were not disclosed. Calls to Geron seeking comment on the agreement were not returned in time for this publication.

“Numerous published research studies have demonstrated the value of telomerized cells as tools to study particular genes, pathways, or cellular responses to drugs,” David Earp, Geron’s senior vice president of business development and chief patent counsel, said in a statement. “We are now seeing a strong interest in the use of these cells for drug discovery within biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.”

Geron describes itself as a biopharmaceutical firm developing therapies and diagnostics for cancer, for which it uses proprietary technologies such as the telomerase method and embryonic stem cells. For that reason, it has also retained all rights for the use of telomerized cells in therapeutic applications in its deal with Cambrex.

As Earp indicated, both the telomerase and stem-cell technologies have also become valuable tools in drug discovery research, and Geron has made several deals over the past year with companies akin to Cambrex to commercialize products based on them.

For instance, it signed pacts last year with non-profit organization American Type Culture Collection, as well as UK-based drug discovery firm Xcellsyz, in which those entities agreed to create and distribute their own cell lines immortalized with human telomerase reverse transcriptase for drug discovery and screening.

Furthermore, Geron inked a deal last year with Procter & Gamble, which will use the technologies to study the regulation of cell function and develop biological assays for drug screening.

And, as Inside Bioassays reported last year, Geron also is collaborating with CXR Biosciences and the Roslin Institute to develop and commercialize human embryonic stem cell-derived hepatocytes for use in drug metabolism and toxicity screens (see Inside Bioassays, 5/25/2004).

More Cells for Cambrex

From Cambrex’s perspective, the agreement adds another useful product to its repertoire of specialized cell lines for drug discovery and other biological research.

“We believe that telomerase-immortalized cells could bring significant advantages to the drug screening process,” David Eansor, president of Cambrex Bioproducts, said in a statement. “We expect to develop a range of telomerized cell types to meet the needs of our customers. We plan initially to market these cells to our pharmaceutical and biotechnology customers through our specialized sales team that has expertise in high-throughput screening. In addition, telomerized cell systems will be complementary to our Clonetics and Poietics normal human cell systems.”

“We have over 100 cell lines and what I’ll call cell models,” Hess elaborated. “For example, we have a cell model for the blood-brain barrier, to study CNS drugs, and we also have a lot of precursor cells: adult stem cells, hematopoetic cells. So this really fits well with our existing products.”

Various Cambrex subsidiaries also sell cell-therapy services; endotoxin detection products, services, and software; electrophoresis and chromatography products; products and services for rapid testing, including custom assay development; regulatory services; and therapeutic commercialization solutions, according to the company’s website.

Just as the stem cell-derived hepatocytes enable drug researchers to conduct assays on notoriously difficult-to-use hepatocytes, the telomerase-immortalized cells are expected to increase the productivity of cell-based research.

“We have a very good infrastructure for normal human cells,” Hess said. “However, it’s hard to get a large-enough population of cells that are consistent for high-throughput screening. So the telomerase-immortalized cells allow you to get enough cells in a large enough population to do high-throughput screening, and that’s really the reason for it. It’s just really difficult using normal culturing methods to get really homogenous, large populations for HTS.”

Marc Symons, an associate investigator and director of the Tumor Cell Biology Laboratory at the North Shore Long Island Jewish Hospital in Manhasset, NY, corroborated Hess’ comments.

“It hasn’t been a major advance, but it’s been a notable advance,” Symons said. “With respect to toxicology or screening assays, I think that’s a very promising area, but I don’t yet know of any high-throughput assays that have been using such cell lines.”

Symons, who is considering using telomerase-immortalized cells in his research on the role of GTPase signaling proteins in cancer, said that these cells are an attractive alternative to existing methods for immortalizing cells.

“Another way [to immortalize] is to disable the p53 tumor suppressor, which can be done in a variety of ways,” Symons said. “But p53 has many functions in the cell, most notably with respect to survival. If p53 is disabled, the resistance of these cells to certain drugs may change. So immortalized cell lines are much closer to normal cells than the mutant p53 immortalized cells.”

— BB


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