Glaxo, Astra, Roche back stem cells for drug tests

LONDON (Reuters) - Three of Europe’s top drugmakers have backed a new public-private scheme to use stem cells for safety testing of experimental medicines, signaling “big pharma’s” growing interest in the controversial field.

A doctor holds vials containing stem cells in Bangkok December 19, 2005. Three of Europe's top drugmakers have backed a new public-private scheme to use stem cells for safety testing of experimental medicines, signaling "big pharma's" growing interest in the controversial field. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Stem Cells for Safer Medicines Ltd, a non-profit British company launched on Wednesday, will focus initially on developing better ways of testing for liver toxicity -- the biggest single cause of drug failures and withdrawals.

GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Roche have each paid 100,000 pounds ($200,000) to help fund the first year’s work, while the British government is contributing 750,000 pounds.

Other drug firms are expected to join soon, according Philip Wright, director of science and technology at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the firm’s chief executive.

Stem cells are the body’s master cell, acting as a source for the body’s cells and tissues. Embryonic stem cells are the most malleable, but their use in research is opposed by some people because it involves destruction of a human embryo.

Britain, however, has encouraged such research and science minister Ian Pearson said the new collaboration was an example of the government’s commitment to the field.

By working across academic and industrial laboratories, the project aims to develop effective ways of using human embryonic stem cells to screen for potentially dangerous side effects of new drugs before they go into clinical trials.

It will not evaluate stem cells as potential treatments.

Ian Cotgreave, head of molecular toxicology at AstraZeneca, said there were still significant hurdles to overcome in differentiating liver cells from existing stem cell lines but the technology could dramatically improve R&D productivity.

“The big problem is that, not knowing any better, we are today putting compounds into the regulatory (approval) system that then fall down in the clinic,” he told reporters.

More than 90 percent of drugs entering clinical development fail to get to market, due to lack of effectiveness or adverse side effects that were not picked up in animal tests.

The liver is particularly vulnerable, since it acts as the body’s garbage removal system. High-profile drug failures due to liver problems include AstraZeneca’s anti-thrombotic Exanta and Pfizer’s diabetes drug Rezulin.

The next research area will be heart cells, where new tests could shed light on cardiovascular side effects like those that led to the withdrawal of Merck & Co’s Vioxx in 2004.