At a small laboratory in Stockholm, Mattias Bernow is working on something of a modern miracle. He’s making stem cells — lots of them — to treat everything from cardiovascular disease to cancer, Type 1 diabetes to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to Covid.“It’s like medicine — with artificial intelligence or AI,” says Bernow, who’s changed into a white coat and clogs for a tour of the lab. Stem cells infused intravenously or injected into the relevant tissue will first listen to the signals from the body and then decide on what action is needed for that specific patient — for instance, someone suffering from heart disease could have cells injected into the heart muscle and the new cells would then contribute to repairing it. According to him, these cutting-edge cell treatments might do for chronic diseases what antibiotics did for infectious disorders.
The problem? The cost and the difficulty of obtaining high-quality stem cells is prohibitive. However, businesses like the one headed by Bernow are working to alter that.
Stem Cells Accessible To All
Bernow is the CEO of Cellcolabs, a stem cell firm established in 2021 by Per Btelson, a seasoned healthtech entrepreneur, the impact foundation Norrsken, and Katarina Le Blanc, a professor of clinical stem cell research at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
Cellcolabs seeks to decrease the cost of cutting-edge cell treatments by mass-producing stem cells. It’s a difficult process; stem cells must be removed from patients, frozen, monitored, and then ready for the following patient. The goal is to lower the cost of the therapies for middle-class patients and to facilitate major clinical studies that may result in a more widespread and well-accepted use of stem cells in routine medical care.
“If you are a National Hockey League professional or a movie star, you can already afford to get a cell therapy treatment in Mexico, the Bahamas, or Panama, but it will cost tens of thousands of euros,” he claims. The idea is that middle-class people should be able to pay for it on their own, wherever they may be in the globe.
With the aid of 10-15 young, healthy bone marrow donors, Cellcolabs intends to be able to create 1,000–2,000 high-quality batches of cells each year in the lab, which consists of six gleaming rooms. 50 ml of bone marrow from unpaid donors is obtained, and the stem cells are then isolated, stored in tiny containers, and replicated many times over. The batches are then quality checked before going through a controlled cryopreservation, where the cells are initially frozen from a few degrees below freezing to just shy of minus 200C just before they are ready to ship. With the aid of 10-15 young, healthy bone marrow donors, Cellcolabs intends to be able to create 1,000–2,000 high-quality batches of cells each year in the lab, which consists of six gleaming rooms.
Cellcolabs is now conducting its own clinical studies in Abu Dhabi for age-related fragility and knee osteoarthritis, and shortly in the Bahamas for sports injuries and disease prevention. However, it also has clients who use the cells in fields like fundamental research or the creation of medications, including those for neurological illnesses. Bernow thinks it will hasten the period until stem cells are more frequently utilized to treat patients by lowering the cost of them and making them more accessible for research.
The Norrsken Foundation and a number of angel investors, including co-founders of Voi and Kry, Johannes Schildt and Fredrik Hjelm, have invested €4 million in the business.
Producing countless high-quality stem cells TreeFrog Therapeutics, a French firm, is likewise engaged in the production of stem cells, although in bioreactors. In its early years, TreeFrog focused on induced pluripotent stem cells, which may be developed into any type of human cell required for therapeutic purposes by being intentionally reprogrammed into an embryonic state from skin or blood cells. These can then be stimulated to develop into neurons to treat neurological problems, blood cells to treat leukemia patients, or cells to cure diabetes. However, it ran into the issue that many cell producers are facing: since cells are living creatures, they are extremely brittle. Numerous cells might be harmed while being produced using a bioreactor.
With its biomimetic hydrogel-like coating technique, TreeFrog is able to generate huge volumes of any type of cell without compromising on quality. Instead of selling its cells to research centers like Cellcolabs, the business is collaborating with select partners to develop cell treatments internally after raising $75 million in September 2021 to strengthen its technology. One of those collaborations is with a Japanese business that aids in the encapsulation of NK cells, commonly known as killer cells, which are used to treat cancer.
Additionally, it is developing internal clinical programs for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease; the first of these will be tested on humans in 2025. According to TreeFrog’s CEO Frédéric Desdouits, “We have something which is unique — we are the only company in the world to be able to grow neurons in vitro and inject them in the brains of rats.”
By receiving a good manufacturing practice (GMP) label from their regional medical goods authorities, TreeFrog and Cellcolabs may now sell cells to outside partners. But adult cell transplant therapies are less prevalent than they could be, in part because people tend to identify them with other, more morally contentious, fields of medical research. The moral dilemmas surrounding the use of embryos and cloning, according to Bernow, have cast a shadow over the entire industry.
Cellcolabs, which employs stem cells donated by young, healthy individuals, is mostly unaffected by these ethical quandaries, but this skepticism is impeding the development of the sector, according to him. He believes that when more clinical research on stem cells is conducted, more treatments will become available. But up until now, progress in Europe has progressed very slowly.
“Neither the FDA in the US nor the EMA (European regulatory authority) are recognized for being the quickest. Although regulatory slowness has a solid cause, bone marrow-derived [stem cells] have been studied for more than 20 years, and there are no known serious adverse effects, according to Bernow. “Hopefully, regulation will change once there are enough significant clinical studies that can demonstrate the advantages of using these cells,” says the author.
There are more companies that focus on cell production besides TreeFrog and Cellcolabs. Other players in this space include UK biotechs Ori Biotech and MicrofluidX, which is creating a microfluidic platform that might create cell and gene treatments.
An even more exciting discovery has been made by LifeWave, a company in the US. They have developed a patch that, according to the founder David Schmidt, will rejuvenate a person’s own natural stem cells and encourage the production of new natural stem cells. After age 50 there is almost no natural stem production in our bodies.
These stem cell patches are currently available to the general public with no prescription.