"These cells will be tremendous in drug discovery," said John McNeish, executive director of Pfizer's global research and development arm in an interview reported by Reuters.
McNeish, described by Pfizer as "one of the world's leading stem cell scientists", has many years experience in using stem cells, particularly as screening tools in drug discovery. He gave an interview at the World Stem Cell Summit in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this week where he revealed that some of the first applications of stem cell technology at Pfizer will be in drug testing.
Pfizer, who lead the world in blockbuster drug sales (last year they sold over 10 billion dollars' worth of their cholesterol-busting statin Lipitor), is also to set up a new standalone regenerative medicine unit in Cambridge in the UK. This centre will focus on diseases of the central nervous system and ophthalmology, while McNeish's US-based unit will focus on diabetes and heart disease.
Pfizer hope to build up a team of 50 to 60 scientists specializing in stem cell research, working to develop new stem cell therapies. They will collaborate with academics and the smaller biotech companies, which to date have led the field.
McNeish said that iPS cells will help Pfizer researchers "understand personalized medicine, genetic variation, ethnic populations, what biomarkers to follow".
He said he hoped it will be possible one day to use compounds to coax stem cells in the body to repair injuries. For now, they will use them to help decide which drugs are likely to be safe, said the Reuters report.
One example would be to stimulate the production of new heart cells to repair tissue damage in patients with chronic heart failure. Even a 3 or 4 per cent improvement could make a significant difference to a patient's quality of life, said McNeish.
Pfizer is not the only drug company to start looking at stem cell technology as a source of new therapies. Last year GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), AstraZeneca and Roche Holding launched a new initiative "Stem Cells for Safer Medicines" for using stem cells to test new drugs. And GSK recently announced a 25 million dollar joint project with Harvard Stem Cell Institute to look into the drug development potential of stem cell technology.
Scientists gathered at the World Stem Cell Summit pushed for more research into stem cells.
James Thomson, the first scientist to isolate stem cells ten years ago, was also at the summit and spoke of new opportunities for stem cell research to develop therapies against cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's. Delegates also discussed legislation, bioethics and politics.
The summit also dealt with the uneasy tension between iPS and embryonic stem cell research, where the latter involves destroying human embryos. According to a report by Channel 3000 Wisconsin TV, Governor Jim Doyle gave a speech with Thomson on this, saying they both supported continuing research into both types of stem cell. Thomson said he believed the future was in iPS cells but it wasn't here yet.
"If they're identical to embryonic stem cells, then everything we're doing with embryonic stem cells today will apply directly to these new stem cell lines," said Thomson, however:
"If they're fatally flawed in some way, not clinically relevant, then everything we're doing with embryonic stem cells will apply to embryonic stem cells and we won't waste any time," he said.
"We can not allow once again a fight over politics and over one religion versus another religion to get into the middle of a scientific issue of where science should lead us and where the research should go," added Doyle.
In its Stem Cell Research Policy, Pfizer recognizes that "human embryonic stem cells may provide even greater potential due to their increased ability for self-renewal and capacity to form a wide variety of cells and tissues". The company says it acknowledged the sensitive issues raised by this research and that proper standards are necessary to safeguard not only the moral but also the public view.
Source: Reuters, Pfizer, World Stem Cell Summit, Pharmtech Talk, channel 3000.
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