Ever since their discovery, stem cells have been touted as the key to future scientific breakthroughs--from eliminating waiting lists for organ transplants to curing diseases such as diabetes. But their limited availability has dampened much of that potential. Cellular Dynamics International, based in Madison, Wisconsin, promises to change that with its technology that can produce billions of cells a day.
Cellular Dynamics has a strong pedigree in stem cell research. The company’s co-founder, James Thomson, even landed on the cover of Time for his work. In 1998, Thomson isolated the first line of human embryonic stem cells. Such cells were pluripotent, meaning they were capable of developing into any type of specialized cell. The achievement brought about hope that stem cells could vastly improve drug discovery and research, but it also raised an ethical dilemma, because the process of isolating stem cells destroyed the embryos. In 2001, President George W. Bush issued an executive order (since lifted) to restrict federal funding on stem cell research to existing cell lines.
By 2004, Thomson felt the promise of stem cell technology was inhibited by the small quantities available to researchers. If identical cells could be produced from existing stem cell lines in mass quantity, he believed, medical research could progress much more quickly. So that year, he teamed up with Robert Palay, the former CEO of NimbleGen Systems, and Palay’s brother, Thomas, to start Cellular Dynamics. "We recognized that it couldn't be done in academia," says Palay. "It had to be done in a company."
Another scientific discovery put the company on the path toward its goal of industrializing stem cell production. In 2007, Thomson co-authored a paper, published in Science, which described a new method to develop pluripotent stem cells from adult skin cells. For three years, the company worked to refine Thomson's method into an industrial-grade system capable of producing cells in large quantities. To date, Cellular Dynamics has closed $100 million in funding.
Today, Cellular Dynamics’ labs produce some 2 billion cells a day. From its stem cell lines, the company develops four types of cells: heart, brain, liver, and blood vessel cells. They sell to scientists around the world, both in academia and within pharmaceutical companies. "We've sold to 110 customers this year, and virtually every one of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies," Palay says.
Currently, the cells that the company manufactures are primarily used to test new drugs and chemicals. One pharmaceutical company, for instance, has used them to research treatment for dementia. But the company is exploring other potential applications, such as tissue transplants. A researcher at the University of Arizona is investigating new methods of treating heart attacks by growing heart tissue from the company's cells.
One of the most exciting possibilities for Cellular Dynamics is in the area of genetic research. In addition to manufacturing brain and heart cells en masse, the company can produce stem cell lines from anyone's cells, and in turn produce any type of cell from that specific lineage. That capability allows researchers to compare individual cells based on their genetic makeup. For instance, a study at Wisconsin Medical College, funded by the National Institute of Health, is using heart cells derived from the stem cell lines of 250 individuals to investigate whether certain genes increase the likelihood of congestive heart failure.
"Our business," Palay says, "is about enabling others to make discoveries."