Novo taps stem cells in hunt for diabetes cure

LONDON (Reuters) - Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk A/S is turning to stem cells in the hunt for a cure for diabetes.

Microscopic view of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells. REUTERS/University of Wisconsin/Handout

The world leader in diabetes care said on Thursday it had launched a new collaboration to develop a treatment for type 1 diabetes by programing stem cells to turn into insulin-producing cells.

The alliance with privately held biotech firm Cellartis and Denmark’s Lund University signals growing interest in stem cell technology within the pharmaceutical industry.

Until now, drugmakers have been wary about the early-stage nature of much stem cell research and anxious about controversy surrounding the use of cells derived from embryos.

But Novo and its partners now believe the technology has advanced to a stage where it may be possible to develop a cell therapy for treating insulin-dependent diabetes and, in the longer term, a cure.

“Finding a cure for diabetes is part of Novo Nordisk’s vision. Today’s agreement is an important first step in achieving our goal,” Peter Kurtzhals, senior vice president for Diabetes Research at Novo Nordisk, said in a statement.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells, giving rise to all the tissues, organs and blood. Embryonic stem cells are considered the most powerful kinds of stem cells, as they have the potential to give rise to any type of tissue.

Under the terms of the agreement Novo will have exclusive rights to develop and commercialize potential diabetes treatments, while Cellartis has rights to certain other products.

Cellartis, which specializes in human embryonic stem cells, will get a technology access fee as well as potential development and sales milestones of more than 100 million euros ($129 million).

It will also receive royalties on eventual worldwide sales of any diabetes care products resulting from the collaboration, plus funding from Novo Nordisk for the joint research program.

The collaboration builds on existing work between the partners but takes it a significant step further by trying to program stem cells to turn into insulin-producing beta cells that can be used for the treatment of diabetes.

Beta cells are lost or destroyed in people with diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, caused by the body’s mistaken destruction of insulin-producing cells. It is rarer and has different causes from the more common type 2 diabetes, which is linked with obesity.