Science of the Lambs

Buying Dolly the duplicated sheep has brought researchers at the Bay Area's Geron Corp. to the threshold of remarkable frontiers in transplants and cloning. Do we want to follow their lead?

The concept is daunting. Perhaps even a tad scary. But it's very real. In fact, it's a budding field of medicine, focused on helping the body repair itself and reducing the need for human organ transplants.

Not tomorrow, however. Geron estimates it will be six to 10 years before its new discoveries are ready for human trials. Still, it's head-spinning progress for a little Silicon Valley start-up begun by a medical school dropout.

Dr. Michael West didn't seem to have much patience for the conventions of medicine. Already armed with a Ph.D. from Baylor University in Texas, West entered medical school there in 1988. But he seemed more fascinated with the biology lab than patients. Specifically, West was interested in the work that researchers were doing with telomeres. So much so that he left medical school in 1991, came to California, and started Geron Corp. to work on exploring commercial aspects of the research.

The company's history is a classic Silicon Valley tale. West sold his idea to Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, king of the Sand Hill Road venture capital firms. West hired Calvin Harley, and set about putting together a team of smart scientists. The money continued to flow, and Geron continued to sign up researchers to exclusive contracts in what was then a very narrow field.

"At that point, it was still a proving ground, and not a race," observes Geron Chief Financial Officer David Greenwood, who joined the firm from J.P. Morgan & Co. Inc. in New York.

In fact, telomere research wasn't even on the agendas of scientific conferences until about 1994. The same year, Harley's team cloned the first component of telomerase, which was Geron's first big patent. Now they were cooking with gas. With an anchor patent under Geron's belt and a bunch of promising research in play, new investors began to take note. The company went public in 1996 in an IPO that raised about $18.5 million, including about $2.5 million from the Japanese pharmaceutical company Kyowa Hakko. (Prior to going public, Geron had raised $42 million in venture capital.)

The company funded research at a handful of university laboratories, and continued to grow at home. Today, it has about 120 employees in two buildings (and seems to be constantly expanding), and collaboration agreements with another 200 or so scientists around the globe.

While still not profitable, Geron is amassing a vault of assets. The company has more than 50 owned or exclusive licenses on its discoveries, including an agreement with Clonetech Laboratories Inc. to market cell lines immortalized with telomerase. The company has research and royalty deals with pharmaceutical giants Upjohn Pharmacia and Kyowa Hakko totaling about $88 million.

"This company has led a charmed existence," says Greenwood. "At some point, I'm afraid we will have a turn in the road. I hope not, but it's inevitable with any company."

West, however, had ideas that didn't interest Geron's executive suite, and finally left the company entirely in February of this year. Earlier, West had founded Origen Therapeutics in South San Francisco. Origen is working on research with avian stem cells to grow a better chicken. Along the way, West also connected with another research firm, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) in Massachusetts, where he became president and chief executive officer.

And, just as Mike West resides on the cutting edge of science, he also tends to be on the cutting edge of controversy. Most spectacularly, last November, within days of Geron's announcement that its Johns Hopkins collaborators had successfully extracted human stem cells from aborted fetal tissue, ACT made an announcement of its own.

Scientists at ACT had transplanted human genetic material into the egg of a cow, allowed the cells to divide, and gotten themselves some embryonic stem cells from the result. As though that weren't enough, ACT announced the result without going through the requisite peer-review publication, which ruffled the scientific community, who might otherwise have been more supportive. At the time, West told the media that he wanted to gauge public and government reaction before he dumped a pile of money into the prospect.

The reaction: Shit hit the fan.
Everyone who knew about it had something to say. President Clinton asked the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to review just what was going on. And a whole lot of people wondered if Mike West hadn't left Geron for The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Things have calmed down since. The ethics committee assured Clinton that ACT wasn't really developing a colony of xenophiles somewhere. (Although, the cow-human research didn't do much to further the already controversial stem cell research.) In fact, while still working on hybrid clones, ACT is really more concerned with re-engineering cows to produce pharmaceutical products in their milk. Hollywood hasn't even thought that one up yet.

Meanwhile, Geron is pushing forward to bring its research into the medical marketplace.

Nearly all classic science fiction plays off the public's fear of unbridled scientific advancement. Cold War technology gave birth to Godzilla, giant spiders, even violent vegetables. Computer engineering brought us a series of uncontrollable, ill-behaved machines.

And, of course, biotechnology has paved the road to spookyville as far back as the 1950s, when a fictional scientist fool-ing around with "matter transference" accidentally turned into The Fly. The movie was remade several decades later, lest we forgot.

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