Novartis testing stem cell research waters
NEW YORK |
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Novartis AG (NOVN.VX) has begun testing the waters in the controversial field of embryonic stem cell research in the hope it will be ahead of its rivals when marketable therapies begin to emerge, the drug maker's head of corporate research said on Tuesday.
"A company like ours must follow the field so when the breakthrough happens and it starts to become commercially usable, we are already there," Paul Herrling told the Reuters Health Summit by telephone from Shanghai, China.
Herrling cautioned that the research was still in its infancy and that Novartis has dedicated only a dozen or so primary researchers to the technology.
"We're still very far from any drug discovery applications. It cannot be a major research area for Novartis at this point -- it's too early," Herrling said.
Still, Novartis is one of the first major pharmaceutical companies to admit to involvement in the embryonic stem cell field that has so far been left to academic laboratories and small biotechnology companies.
"Many companies are very reluctant to talk about it because of the ethical issues surrounding it, but I'm sure all those companies that have a really strong innovation-based research culture are all doing something similar to what we're doing," Herrling said.
Because of fierce opposition to embryonic research from religious and anti-abortion groups, Novartis has established an external ethical advisory board to oversee its research in the field.
But there is also great enthusiasm over the potential that embryonic stem cells can someday be used to regenerate specific tissues that could be used to treat the likes of heart disease, diabetes, spinal injuries and neurological disorders.
"In Europe, we are working on specifically trying to differentiate human embryonic stem cells eventually for use in neuro regeneration for (diseases) like Parkinson's and maybe Alzheimer's," Herrling said.
In California, Novartis researchers are trying to understand how undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells can be pushed to become one kind of tissue and not another.
"The only way you can understand what's going on in the academic lab in this very, very sophisticated kind of science is by somehow participating in the field," Herrling said.
On a day when U.S. elections could return control of Congress to stem cell research-friendly Democrats, Herrling was asked what impact the lifting of restrictions on federal funding in the field might have. He did not mince words.
"Very clearly if the full power of the U.S. scientific community would be unleashed, because they could now use NIH (National Institutes of Health) money, the probability that breakthroughs would happen in the U.S. would drastically increase."
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