WisBusiness: Officer says business is 'exploding' at Cellular Dynamics International
By Brian E. Clark
Scientists who in the past might never have considered working in the middle of the country -- opting instead for jobs on the East or West Coasts – are now choosing Wisconsin because of the work spawned by Jamie Thomson and other stem cell researchers at UW-Madison, the chief commercial officer of Cellular Dynamics International said.
"It's exciting," Chris Parker said at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon Tuesday. "We are actually able to recruit individuals that normally would have flown over this area from Boston to San Francisco. They're now willing and eager to come to Madison to help us in our mission."
CDI is a privately held company that was co-founded by Thomson and three UW-Madison doctors in 2005. It currently creates and sells four different cell types derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) or reprogrammed stem cells to aid drug discovery and toxicity testing. The firm, which provides stem cells to many pharmaceutical companies and universities around the globe, has 107 employees, including at least 75 scientists who focus on research and development.
Parker said CDI is expanding at a "double digit" rate and will triple its revenue this year.
"Our growth is explosive," said Parker, who has worked for several life science companies and was a cancer researcher at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. "It's hard to keep up with it."
WisBusiness audioWhile Parker covered the commercial side of stem cell advances at the luncheon, Dr. Anita Bhattacharyya, a senior scientist at the UW-Madison Waisman Center, spoke about recent discoveries relating to brain cell regeneration. Her work is focused on Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome, both genetic developmental disorders.
She said she uses stem cells to see what went wrong in the prenatal development of the brain. And she said she has learned that individuals with Down syndrome make fewer brain cells from reprogrammed stem cells. In addition, these cells have defective nerve cell communication, don't fire as often as normal brain cells and have fewer synapses.
"Now," she said, "the question is what can we do to fix this?"
Tom Still, head of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said CDI and the Waisman Center are part of a cluster of researchers and young businesses that are helping improve human health and put Wisconsin on the international biotech map. He and Parker estimated there are at least six stem cells firms now operating in Madison.
Parker and Bhattacharyya's talk attracted three Brazilian veterinary medicine scientists who are part of a stem cell partnership between UW-Madison and the Latin American country.
Parker, who said CDI was not financed by venture capitalists, explained that the company's backers are high net-worth individuals who are "in for the long-term, not a short-term flip."
He said Thomson resisted overtures to start a company for seven years before co-founding CDI in 2005 with a mission of "making stem cells available to the masses."
To do that, CDI has had to 'industrialize the processes, translate the recipes that are being generated in academic labs across the country ... put process controls around it and manufacture these cells so they can be put in the hands of not only stem cell biologists, but pharmaceutical companies, drug developers and other researchers who have had a huge lack of availability of human cells."
Parker said it is difficult to make reprogrammed stem cells.
"It's not surprising there are so many iPS cells out there that have problems because they are made in unregulated environments," he said.
Parker said CDI first had to figure out how to scale up and manufacture large quantities of reprogrammed stem cells, then freeze and ship them to countries around the globe.
Next they had to "scale out," he said, noting that the knowledge of how to reprogram skin and blood cells was derived from working with embryonic stem cells.
"We knew that with iPS technology, it wasn't going to be about taking one cell line and manufacturing a lot of cells. It was going to be about 'how can I make a billion neurons from everyone in this room' and what infrastructure needs to be put in place to do that.
"And it's not cheap. It requires people thinking in a much different way than they've done in a serial process of reprogramming and then taking it to differentiation."
Now, he said, pharmaceutical companies have new tools to help determine if drugs are toxic.
He said three companies used CDI heart cells to test drugs that passed their in-vitro (test tube) trials, animal-model tests and gotten into clinical trials.
The heart cells revealed toxicity "so they never would have gone into later-stage animal studies or the clinical trials that had problems.
"That makes me sleep a lot better because while it's interesting to make heart cells in a dish that beat, it's even better when you know that they are more predictive than any other model that's out there."
He said the company had just been awarded a $6 million grant from the NHLBI (National Heart Lung and Blood Institute) with the Medical College of Wisconsin to generate 250 iPS lines form individuals with genetic hypertension to study that disease.
Parker said he believes the "sky is the limit" for CDI.
"I'm fortunate to work in an environment where science is really driving our commercial strategy," he said. "It's not just marketing. We actually have products that have utility."