Many therapies are available now

By Terri Somers
February 14, 2007

A San Diego-area woman with a herniated disc – and a lot of courage – showed yesterday that not all stem cell therapies are years away.

The woman allowed her surgeon at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas to telecast her discectomy live yesterday to a summit of biotech executives, surgeons and investors gathered in downtown San Diego.

After Dr. Timothy Peppers removed all of the herniated tissue from the woman's cervical spine, viewers saw him pack the center of a synthetic disc with a product called Trinity, a combination of bone and stem cells pulled from bone marrow. Peppers then tapped the synthetic disc into the woman's spine, replacing the tissue he removed.

“The Trinity is a substitute for bone and stem cells harvested from the patient's hip that is often used in this surgery,” Robin Young, the host of the Stem Cell Summit, later explained.

“Surgeons are reporting success with this product in surgery, which means fusion of bone. Does it work better than bone? Sometimes, yes,” said Young, a medical technology analyst who follows the stem cell industry.

The Stem Cell Summit, which ended yesterday, was a two-day gathering that gave about 300 stem cell company executives, scientists and investors a chance to talk about stem cell applications that are already on the market, or products being developed by companies based on stem cell science.

With all the hype surrounding stem cells, and particularly the controversy involving human embryonic stem cells, many people may think all stem cell therapies are years away.

Companies such as Blackstone Medical, which makes the Trinity product, and Osiris Therapeutics, which has an experimental therapy using stem cells to treat graft versus host disease, either have products on the market, or are close to getting there, Young said.

The summit sought to show investors and physicians that some research is closer to market than they think, Young said, specifically therapies using adult stem cells, which are pulled from bone marrow, blood and fat.

Therapies from human embryonic stem cells, which are controversial and receive more media coverage, are much farther from market because the understanding of these cells is nascent, said Tom Baker, a spokesman for San Diego-based Cytori Therapeutics, a stem cell company that sponsored the summit.

The summit is an attempt to help people differentiate between the progress in the two fields, and drum up more interest in often-ignored but more advanced adult stem cell research, said Baker, whose company is developing therapies that pull adult stem cells from fat for reconstructive surgery or cardiac problems.

“There's going to be a large educational curve in this field,” Baker said.

Executives from companies with a big interest in medical devices, such as Baxter and Johnson & Johnson, were at the conference looking for an education.