Invitrogen this week said it has obtained a license from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to use its human embryonic stem cells to develop research tools.
The foundation, known as WARF, holds the IP for matter-of-composition and method-of-derivation for all karyotypically normal primate and human ESCs. Under the terms of the agreement, Invitrogen will have the right to work with karyotypically normal hESCs to develop novel drug-discovery tools, a company official told CBA News this week.
The tools will include the media to grow and differentiate these cells, said Joydeep Goswami, vice president of stem cells and regenerative medicine at Invitrogen. “They will also include engineered hESCs, where the ESCs are engineered with specific genes that help researchers identify pathways that are important in ESCs, and also for the derivation downstream of specific cell types, such as a neuronal cell type or an organ progenitor cell type,” he said.
That can help researchers to develop better assays for screening and ADME/Tox testing, among other applications.
Although Invitrogen said customers can use the cells to find therapeutic targets, Goswami said that, more specifically, “we want to identify pathways that will allow us to offer even better reagents downstream.”
Invitrogen will use the stem cells to provide products that already contain specific genes in hESCs and their derivatives, Goswami said. “We will also offer services to pharmaceutical companies that will allow them to manipulate the cells and look at their specific genes of interest, or look at the compound or target that they are going after.”
“We believe that the work we have been carrying out, in addition to some of the licensing agreements that we have signed, including the agreement with WARF, will enable us to bring these tools to the industry, the tools being complete cell systems, with the engineered cells and the means to grow them, differentiate them, purify them, et cetera, as a complete package to biotech and pharma companies,” said Goswami.
The agreement also represents a continuation of Invitrogen’s broader stem cell strategy, said Goswami. “We have already made significant investments in stem cell research and stem cell research tools,” he said. “This agreement takes it to the next level, in terms of starting to offer hESCs as another reagent that researchers can use.”
The company has launched other stem cell reagents in the past, for example, the BG01V/hOG line, the hESC hOCT4 GFP reporter.
The WARF license enables Invitrogen’s Madison, Wisc.-based drug discovery-services business to extend its services to pharmaceutical companies on the screening side.
“[Invitrogen] want[s] to identify pathways that will allow us to offer even better reagents downstream.”
The deal also fits into Invitrogen’s $57 million acquisition in January of CellzDirect, a hepatocyte-focused products and services company, “which now fits into the ADME/Tox testing side,” said Goswami (see CBA News, 1/11/08
Nicolas Barthelemy, senior vice president for cell systems at Invitrogen, told CBA News at the time that “on the research side, [Invitrogen is] trying to move [its] product mix from the traditional cell culture products, which is a market that is growing at a little slower rate, about 4 to 5 percent, towards [primary cell and stem cell] culture, or protein expression in primary and stem cells, which is a market that is growing at a rate of about 12 to 15 percent.”
He added that Invitrogen is trying to spur this growth organically, and to that end, the company is investing “a fair amount of money” in R&D in primary and stem cell products and services. “Another way, which is always worth keeping an eye on, is inorganically through acquisitions,” Barthelemy added.
This week, Goswami told CBA News that “obviously some of the work that we are doing internally, in terms of engineering cells, will fit into the toxicology side quite nicely, in terms of developing better toxicology studies.”
This WARF license is consistent with how Invitrogen has previously described its strategy to become a leader in the stem-cell field and “extend the use of stem cells into existing markets, be it on the research or the screening side,” said Goswami.
Andrew DeTienne, WARF’s stem cell licensing manager, said, “I am really pleased to have worked out a cooperative licensing agreement with Invitrogen. They are a major player in the supply of reagents and research tools … and to have them now with a focus on stem cells, and providing the same level of high quality tools and reagents for stem cells, I think is great.”
Having another player in the market providing these cells allows scientists to “spend their time actually doing research, as opposed to building the tools that they need to do the research,” DeTienne said. WARF currently licenses these stem cells to 18 companies, a potion of research applications.
Nascent, but Growing
Stem cells are a nascent market, but cell-based assays represent a more than $160 million market that is growing rapidly, Goswami said. “Some part of that market is applicable to this licensing agreement, and the interesting part is that if you look at the industry as a whole, there is a big need for more representative cells, meaning human cells and more immortalized lines.”
Stem cells have always been of great interest to Invitrogen as a way to fill some of the gaps in that need, said Goswami. “If you are talking about neurons, for example, it is very difficult to get human neural stem cells on a regular basis. ESC research and some of the ESC research that we have been carrying out fills this gap,” he said.
In addition, it is even more difficult to get cells that have been engineered to report out in a fashion that is amenable to high-throughput screens and the scale-up of some of these studies, said Goswami.