When it comes to working on truly audacious business ideas, biotech startups are having a lot of the fun. Consider, for instance, the regenerative medicine and gene therapy niche in which startups are hard at work developing ways to 3D print human organs.
Today brought good news for the industry: a team of researchers in Japan and at Harvard University have discovered a way to turn adult cells back into stem cells by bathing them in acid or exposing them to a stressful environment. It's a medical breakthrough--and one that could have massive implications for biotech startups.
The history of stem cell medicine has been fraught with complexity. First, there was the controversial fact that stem cells had to be plucked from embryos, which, for years, became a divisive political issue. In 2006, however, Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka discovered a way to transform adult cells into stem cells, a breakthrough method for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012.
Biotech companies like Cellectis, a Paris-based pioneer of regenerative medicine, rushed to license Yamanaka's patents and the field of genetic therapy has been steadily growing ever since. But Yamanaka's process, though innovative, is complex and requires the genes to be manipulated, a risky bet when it comes to implanting them in human patients. This new development, published in the journal Nature Wednesday, circumvents that step altogether. Not only is it safer, but it's also quicker and much cheaper than the alternative.
The study was pioneered by Haruko Obokata, a young Japanese biologist, and an entrepreneur in her own right, who battled mountains of bureaucratic resistance to get her research noticed, Nature reports. So far, the research has been conducted on mice, and it still has a long way to go, but if it can be replicated with human cells, it may lead to more innovation and opportunities for biotech startups.
As Chris Mason, chair of regenerative medicine bioprocessing at the University College London, put it to Business Insider, "If it works in man, this could be the game changer that ultimately makes a wide range of cell therapies available using the patient's own cells as starting material."
Mason adds: "The age of personalized medicine would have finally arrived."