Invitrogen this week announced a pair of agreements involving human embryonic stem cells aimed at bolstering the company's already strong play in the stem cell research market.
On Tuesday, Invitrogen said that it had entered into a collaboration with Swedish biotech Cellartis to jointly develop engineered hESC reporter lines. Two days later, Invitrogen struck a deal to license intellectual property from Geron related to techniques for large-scale growth of hESCs.
Though the deals are only coincidental in timing, they are related in that they represent Invitrogen's commitment to human stem cell research, a company official told CBA News this week.
In addition, with the backing of Invitrogen's substantial sales and marketing force and R&D team, the cell lines and techniques at the heart of both deals are expected to increase the use of hESCs in pharmaceutical drug screening and the genetic characterization of stem cell differentiation.
According to Joydeep Goswami, Invitrogen's vice president of stem cells and regenerative medicine, stem cell research can be differentiated into four areas.
"If you think broadly about what the research community is looking for, it really coalesces around a workflow of four different elements: Isolation of stem cells; characterization of stem cells; expansion, which is growing stem cells; and differentiating them, finally, into lineages that they're interested in," Goswami told CBA News this week.
Goswami said that Invitrogen is already one of the largest providers of products and technologies covering these areas. For example, he cited the company's large collection of primary antibodies and labeling technologies such as fluorophores and quantum dots, all of which contribute to stem cell characterization; its portfolio of media, growth factors, and cytokines for stem cell growth; and its RNAi technology for studying stem cell differentiation.
Overall, Invitrogen offers more than 1,200 products that are applicable across stem cell research, and approximately 90 percent of the National Institutes of Health's stem cell research protocols revolve around Invitrogen technologies, Goswami told CBA News.
"We're committed not only to embryonic stem cell research, but also adult stem cell research, and will continue to focus on these areas," Goswani said. "A large part of our push in this space is to harness the power of these cells — whether it's through molecular biology, cell biology, or cell culture — and to pull together these various technology platforms and make it relevant and useful to the community."
The Geron and Cellartis agreements are expected to fill gaps in Invitrogen's offerings for the growth and differentiation of stem cells, respectively.
"Given our infrastructure and scientific horsepower with the recent addition of [former NIH researcher] Mahendra Rao [whom Invitrogen hired in April to lead its stem cell business], more than 20 researchers focused exclusively on stem cell research, and the power to draw on 600 additional scientists, it makes us a very active candidate for external companies to license products to," he added. "We are really one of the first choices when people want to license technologies to us, and that gives us the luxury to pick and choose what we think are the best technologies."
Invitrogen has licensed a portfolio of intellectual property from Geron related to techniques for the growth of hESCs in the absence of feeder cells and to specific media formulations that can be used for such feeder-free growth.
"We are really one of the first choices when people want to license technologies to us, and that gives us the luxury to pick and choose what we think are the best technologies."
"Where the Geron piece really fits is in this expansion area, where the challenge is to grow large quantities of hESCs in a feeder-free manner," Goswami said. "Currently most of these cells are grown on mouse embryonic or human fibroblast cells, but it's a major pain to first have to plate out these feeder layers. And of course mouse feeder layers are of [foreign] origin, so it's a big hassle."
Invitrogen said that researchers wouldn't be able to use specific feeder-free techniques or media without a license from Geron, but "by licensing this technology, by sale of our products and only our products to these customers, we convey them a right to work under Geron's patents," Goswami said.
Goswami added that up to 90 percent of potential users of the feeder-free methods will be basic cell biology researchers who are attempting to characterize stem cells.
"People want to study which genes are active, which are not active, and how you then progress these cells down to a defined lineage," Goswami said. "How do you create neurons from these cells? How do you create hepatocytes? That's where most of this research is right now: Basic fundamental research, and to do all of that, one needs to grow large quantities of cells to have a base to work with."
Geron considers the licensing agreement non-exclusive, but Goswami said that he does not know of any other companies that have taken a license to the IP. Geron officials were unavailable for comment.
Meantime, Invitrogen expects its agreement with Cellartis will bolster its offerings for studying stem cell differentiation and, eventually, cell lines for drug screening.
Specifically, Cellartis has expertise in deriving and growing hESC cell lines and, combined with Invitrogen's labeling, detection, and cell culture proficiency, the companies plan to offer cell lines to provide scientists "with a visual readout for tracking stem cell differentiation into different lineages and also enable scientists to study multiple genes involved in differentiation pathways, without having to sacrifice the cells," Invitrogen said in a statement.
The reporter lines could also eventually be used to create "advanced drug-discovery screening assays," the companies said.