London’s Stem Cell Sciences said this week that it is coordinating an EU-funded project to screen for drug candidates using its neural stem cell technology. The project gives the company a bit of a financial boost, but more importantly, serves as an important step in proving the value of its stem cell platform as a drug-discovery tool, according to a company official.
The project, called NEUROscreen, is funded by the European Union’s 6th Framework Program for Research and Technical Development, which is contributing €2.4 million ($3.4 million) to the project over the next three years, of which SCS expects to see around €420,000 ($594,000).
The goal of NEUROscreen is to design bioassays for the company’s neural stem cell, or NS cell, technology, which the participants will use to discover “potential new regenerative medicines” for a range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and epilepsy, according to a company statement.
Tim Allsopp, chief scientific officer at SCS, told Cell-Based Assay News this week that the project is an important proof of concept for the NS cell platform. The company’s SC Services business, which was launched in December 2006, already markets a mouse NS cell platform, and SCS inked a deal with Merck as its first customer for the technology in February [see CBAN, 02-23-07].
The company is planning to launch a human NS cell platform before the end of the year, and views the NEUROscreen project as one way to validate the technology as an effective drug screening platform, Allsopp said. “By way of illustration, hopefully it will lead to more commercial uptake by drug discovery or pharmaceutical company partners through sublicensing, or through direct purchase of the assays, or even through … the uptake of any chemistry or compounds that are discovered.”
Allsopp said that SCS has already seen “interest” from several pharmaceutical companies in its NS cell platform. Nevertheless, he said, “I think it will greatly facilitate the commercial realization of what we have at our disposal if we can physically demonstrate that these things can work in terms of the production of cells that scale, the design of bioassays, and then the use of those bioassays to discover potential future medicines.”
According to SCS, its neural stem cells offer a number of advantages for drug screening over current cell-based assays.
“A stem cell-based assay really provides something much more versatile, flexible, and much more physiological than many of the cell-based assays that are currently in use in the pharmaceutical industry,” Allsopp said. “Typically these are based on cell types that might be human, but they’re immortalized.They may be tumor lines, they may be heterogeneously phenotyped, they probably don’t grow very well, [and] it’s difficult to scale them up in terms of production.”
SCS believes that a fully automated NS cell platform could eventually “surpass — and make obsolete, really — a lot of the current cell-based models that are used in drug discovery,” Allsopp said, because the technology would allow researchers “for the first time — in terms of quantity and quality — to be able to do appropriate physiological-type discovery experiments in a multi-replicate format using normal human stem cells that have been mass-produced.”
Allsopp cautioned, however, that the company has a bit of work ahead of it before this potential is fully realized. “It’s going to take, obviously, the next two and three-quarter years to see it through, but we’re anticipating that [the NEUROscreen project] will greatly strengthen and validate the NS cell as a stem cell-based screening platform.”
Seeking Another Partner
NEUROscreen grew out of another EU-funded project called the European Consortium for Stem Cell Research, or EuroStemCell. One outcome of that project was a new technology to derive and grow neural stem cells developed by Austin Smith’s group at the University of Edinburgh. SCS acquired an exclusive license to the technology in 2005.
Allsopp said that after acquiring the NS cell technology, SCS decided to submit an application to the EU for NEUROscreen to demonstrate “how successful their funding can be in terms of sustaining … innovation in the stem cell area [by using] the NS cells in a drug screening scenario.”
The project partners had a “kickoff meeting” at the end of July and the official start date for the project was Aug. 1, Allsopp said.
“I think it will greatly facilitate the commercial realization of what we have at our disposal if we can physically demonstrate that these things can work in terms of the production of cells that scale, the design of bioassays, and then the use of those bioassays to discover potential future medicines.”
Academic partners in the program include the University of Cambridge, the University of Milan, the University of Bonn, and the UK’s National Institute for Medical Research. Commercial participants include Dialectica, a developer of stem cell-based assays headquartered in Nerviano, Italy; Biorep, a biorepository firm based in Milan, Italy; and Life & Brain, a developer of therapies for nervous system disorders based in Bonn, Germany.
Allsopp said that SCS is still seeking another partner to provide chemistry capabilities for the project. The company has issued a call for interested parties, and expects to select the final partner within the next four to six weeks. The consortium is looking for a small company “that would be a partner rather than a service provider,” Allsopp said.
The academic groups are providing “biological intellectual input,” Allsopp said, including additional cell types of neural stem cells and human ES-derived neuroprogenitor cells, “and they’re interested in increasing the biological bandwidth and knowledge that can be obtained through this kind of activity.”
Allsopp said that the other industry partners were selected based on their ability to offer “complementary input in terms of skills and technology,” and the fact that they pose “minimal to no conflicts in terms of onward commercialization.”
While the IP terms of the consortium are still being determined, “we don’t anticipate any kind of conflicts associated with any kind of unbalanced sharing of the intellectual property or the knowledge or the commercial rights for anything that comes out of this project,” he said.
In terms of deliverables, the project partners intend to focus on three key areas, Allsopp said. First, they plan to use chemical genetics “to try and understand a lot more about the basic biology of these human cells.”
In addition, he said, the partners plan to develop specific assays that will identify molecules that can stimulate the activity of stem cells “to self-renew or to differentiate into particular neural cell types — either neurons or glia — or different types of neurons,” Allsopp said.
These assays would be based on specially engineered neural stem cell lines that would be structured to give a specific readout to indicate whether, for example, there was a higher percentage of neurons made versus other cell types, or whether the neural stem cells were stimulated to proliferate.
A longer-term prospect, Allsopp said, is that of identifying compounds with potential for treating central nervous system diseases. He stressed that the consortium partners are unlikely to carry any of these candidates into drug development, but noted that if any promising compounds arise from the effort, “we would look to work with other partners to further the exploitation of those molecules.”