San Mateo County Times

Gene firm to merge with Dolly cloners
Wednesday, May 05, 1999

By Liz Garone

MENLO PARK -- Geron Corp., the Menlo Park-based company that created headlines last year with research into human stem cells, announced Tuesday that it is merging with Roslin Bio-Med, part of the company that brought us Dolly the cloned sheep.

The joining of these two genetic research innovators means the day when heart attack victims have their damaged heart cells replaced with healthy ones could be a step closer.

"The joining of the smart minds and the suite of intellectual property platforms the two companies have really has a lot of potential," said Martina Mcgloughlin, director of biotechnology at UC Davis. "But we're far from there. It won't happen overnight."

Geron will pay about $26million in company stock for Roslin Bio-Med.

Roslin Bio-Med is a unit of the nonprofit Roslin Institute, whose genetic scientists cloned Dolly the sheep two years ago. Geron is best known for its groundbreaking and patented work in growing human stem cells and the discovery of telomerase, a cell-regenerating enzyme.

The newly named Geron Bio-Med will be based at Roslin headquarters in Midlothian, Scotland. Geron will supply about $20.2 million over the next six years in funding.

Research will focus on combining three areas of genetic engineering in which Geron and Roslin hold patents.

Last January, Geron announced that researchers had found a way to keep human cells alive long past the time they would normally die with the enzyme telomerase. Then, in November, the company announced success in growing human stem cells from embryos and fetuses in the laboratory. Geron holds patents relating to both technologies.

Roslin patented the nuclear transfer cloning method used to create Dolly. The patent will be transferred to Geron, according to Tuesday's announcement.

Excellent position

Combining these three technologies puts the two companies in an excellent position to perfect cell reprogramming, according to Ron Eastman, Geron's president and chief executive officer.

"With the cloning technology, we have an ability to ensure that the cells we transplant won't be rejected," he said. "We think we have now created the preferred source of cells for transplantation medicine."

The goal of Geron Bio-Med will be to generate genetically matched human cells and tissues to be used in repairing organ damage in a number of diseases, including cancer, cirrhosis, Parkinson's, osteoporosis and diabetes.

But first, Geron Bio-Med must find a way to direct the stem cells into a particular type of cell, according to Eastman. Until that happens, replacing unhealthy cells with healthy ones is not a reality, according to Mcgloughlin of UC Davis.

Ethical issues

Geron also faces ethical issues about working with stem cells; there is currently a ban on federal financing of work using tissues derived from human embryos.

Thomas Okarma, Geron's vice president of research and development, said that both companies are in "full support" of the current ban on human reproductive cloning.

Arthur Caplan, who is the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said he isn't too concerned about new ethical issues arising from the merger. What concerns him is the move from public to private research in genetics.

Keeping hype in check

"We have to watch for problems of hype and too much promise in order to attract capital," he said. "Genetics has far more fundamental questions about who we are and what we do than silicon."

Geron was started in 1990 by Michael West, who has a doctorate in cell biology. West dropped out of medical school to develop products based on a theory of aging he had been researching. The company name (pronounced JEH-ron) comes from gerontology, the study of old age.

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