Editor’s note: Each Friday, Allan Maurer will be writing a column about the latest trends and developments in biotech and life sciences. Research at several universities reported the first two months this year suggests that three Triangle-based biotech companies developing products based on adult stem cells are on a potentially highly profitable track.

Catherine Verfaillie at the University of Minnesota and her research team believe they have found an adult stem cell that could turn into any cell in the body.

Previously, researchers thought only stem cells culled from early embryos – a practice that raises controversial ethical questions and faces government restrictions – were thought able to change into any other cell when properly stimulated.

The Verfaillie team found stem cells in the bone marrow that they call multipotent adult progenitor cells or MAPCs. The British magazine “New Scientist” examined the team’s patent application and said its extensive experiments have shown that descendants of one MAPC can turn into muscle, cartilage, bone, liver, and different types of neuron and brain cells.

The Verfaille team’s work must be reproduced in other labs for confirmation. It also raises some questions as to whether the MAPCs actually become functioning cells of various types. Nevertheless, it provides additional verification that companies working on adult stem cell products are on a potentially highly profitable track.

Aretcel reprograms fat cells

Meanwhile, at Duke University, Medical Center researchers reported this month that they have “reprogrammed” adult stem cells from a deposit of fat behind the kneecap into functioning cartilage, bone or fat cells that could one day become replacement tissues.

Adult stem cells are treated with enzymes and centrifuged to separate them, then bathed in biochemical cocktails to make them become specific types of tissue.

The Duke team is led by Artecel Sciences Inc. www.artecel.com consultant Farshid Guilak, director of orthopedic research at the University, and included Dr. Jeff Gimble of Artecel, who holds the patent for the process of isolating these cells from fat.

Guilak says, “This is another demonstration that adult stem cells are not necessarily locked into their current fate and that we can reprogram them into becoming other cell types.”.

Eventually, different medical problems may be addressed by using adult cells taken from different spots in the body “without the same ethical concerns associated with embryonic stem cells,” the scientist says.

Venture-backed Artecel sees the technology as precursor to potential treatments ranging from plumping up wrinkles for aging baby boomers to saving the lives of people who need bone marrow transplants following chemotherapy for cancer. They may also help regenerate lost bone, cartilage, and other tissues.

Artecel CEO Catherine Underwood says that because fat cells are so abundant and accessible, they make it possible to do tissue repair much more readily than does obtaining stem cells from bone marrow, their major source now.

Currently, it is difficult for scientists to identify and separate enough bone marrow adult stem cells for therapeutic uses, but most of us feel we have fat cells to spare, she says.

Artecel received $448,000 in funding from National Institute of Health grants and a $4 million first round venture funding led by Durham-based Eno River Capital in 2000. It is seeks additional venture backing.

Incara seeks treatment for liver disease

Triangle-based Incara Pharmaceuticals, (Nasdaq:INCR), is developing a treatment for liver disease using liver precursor cells. Incara VP of Corporate Planning, Bennett Love, tells LocalTechWire the process uses bone marrow adult stem cells.

Love says Incara scientists and the Minnesota researchers have discussed their respective work.

Incara hopes to develop a treatment that may repair and regenerate damaged livers, someday perhaps replacing liver transplants in the treatment of serious liver disease. Love says the company is six months from asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to begin Phase I clinical trials of the process.

In the trials, researchers will inject patients with a cell mixture that includes the liver “progenitor” cells.

These cells are a population of early cells isolated from donor organs that are not suitable for whole organ transplant. Progenitor cells have significant expansion potential and can differentiate into mature liver cells that provide liver function

While Phase I trials focus on safety, Love says the company also hopes to see that some of the cells survive and provide measurable results. At best, they would find that some of the progenitor cells indeed become functioning liver cells.

Incara’s Web site includes further information about its work with these cells at:www.incara.com/prpreind.

StemCo developing way to identify cells

StemCo Biomedical, a venture-backed Triangle firm looking for another round of financing, is developing a technology to help researchers identify those elusive adult bone marrow stem cells.

StemCo. VP of operations Malcolm Thomas tells LocalTechWire the Minnesota research “helps our case.”

Thomas says “It’s similar to some work we’re doing with collaborators. It’s additional evidence that looks encouraging. It reinforces the concept that adult stem cells can be plastic.”

StemCo also seeks an additional venture round to support continued research. Incara has a number of products development, including super antioxidants to protect against stroke and tissue damage and a treatment for ulcerative colitis.

More information is available at StemCo’s Web site: