Editor's Note: Jon D. Markman writes a weekly column for CNBC on MSN Money that is republished here on
Cancer is the great leveler in society, one of the few killer ailments that cannot be wished away by following a virtuous life of exercise, veggies and deep breathing. No matter how rich or smart or muscular you are, deadly tumor cells might be malingering inside your body, ready to strike.
Our mortal fear of cancer has helped animate the debate over embryonic stem-cell research and pushed both Democrats and Republicans in Congress into an elbows-and-head-butts battle this month with the Bush administration. The House and Senate last week passed one of their few truly bipartisan bills in an effort to widen research into stem-cell research, but the president has promised a veto, complaining that it infringes on the rights of the unborn.
A number of biotech companies are not wasting their time waiting for federal funds as they forge ahead with potential stem-cell solutions to stymie cancer and other dread maladies. And even as the yapping continues in Washington, some courageous and brilliant scientists already are pushing stem-cell studies out of their labs and right into human beings.
Business anthropologist Jim Williams, a master of seeking and understanding meaningful change, flagged a few of examples for me this week. He noted that surgeons in England, for instance, are using stem cells -- which are essentially cell "blanks" that have the unique, amazing, super-helpful ability to morph and multiply into specialized cells -- to fix broken bones that won't mend on their own.
In clinical trials at an orthopedic hospital, doctors are collecting stem cells from the bone marrow in a patient's pelvis, purifying and multiplying them and then placing them directly on the fracture. After a few months, the docs report, the bone becomes as strong as new.
Williams notes that researchers at Heinrich-Heine University in Germany are using adult stem cells from bone marrow to regenerate healthy liver tissue. When cancer invades the liver, you see, many patients cannot withstand surgery because too little of the organ would remain to provide its blood-purifying functionality. Stem cells harvested from patients' own bone marrow are morphed into healthy liver tissue that is used to help the organ regenerate itself, allowing patients to undergo surgery and survive their bout with the disease.
Now doctors working in Massachusetts and Florida are learning how to turn embryonic stem cells into cells that form fully functional blood vessels, a Frankenstein-like experiment that has actually worked to repair diabetes-related eye damage in animals and fix organs damaged in heart attacks.
Smarter Than the Scientist
The uses for stem cells are truly multiplying and replicating, with or without help from Congress. Williams observes that researchers believe that within a few years they will be able to extract stem cells from umbilical cord blood and use them to generate knee ligaments and elbow tendons.
He says athletes will be instructed to "bank" stem cells from the umbilical cords of their own offspring to be used potentially to help them stave off career-ending injuries, refurbish joints or potentially even enhance performance.
How do stem cells do their magic? No one really knows. A recent issue of
covered the work of Evan Snyder, a researcher at Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif., who commented that stem cells implanted into damaged mice brains seemed to know exactly how to do their repair work. "Even the dumbest stem cell is smarter than the smartest neurobiologist," he told the publication.
Next on the agenda for stem-cell researchers is the curious role that stem cells play inside tumors. Williams notes the research suggesting that "rogue" stem cells in cancer are the brains of the tumor's operations and that just one out of several hundred thousand cells can be responsible for the entire metastasizing impulse that makes the disease so dangerous. Researchers are working on blocking just those stem cells; this would allow patients to avoid crippling chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
On the Cutting Edge
There are just a few public companies that are leveraged to stem cells, and none is profitable
-- or even on the verge. The Food and Drug Administration has taken its cues from the head of the executive branch and made drug trials tough for these companies.
, which has 40 patents covering its methods of identifying, purifying, banking and utilizing stem cells in an effort to create therapies for ailments of the central nervous system, liver and pancreas. It traded in the mid-teens in the mid-1990s but now hangs out around $2 as its scientists perfect their craft.
, which has created prospective therapies and lab procedures aimed at the repair and regeneration of human tissue via a patient's own bone-marrow stem cells. It is in clinical trials for bone and blood vessel regeneration, and it is developing similar programs for cardiac and nerve regeneration. Now trading around $1.35, it has at least enough cash to last two years and has potential to reach the $3.50 area if it hits some milestones.
, which shot as high as the $35-$70 range in the late 1990s, is getting ready for clinical trials of a spinal cord injury treatment tied to stem-cell-based therapeutics. Now trading around $8.75, it has potential to get back to the $12.50 area it inhabited in 2005, when prospects looked brighter for all biotech drug makers.
The bottom line is that despite the administration's foot-dragging and Congress' inability to override a Bush veto, private industry and hospital researchers funded by corporate grants are pushing on to create therapies that leverage this remarkable natural healing agent.
Williams concludes that stem-cell technology will ultimately change medical treatment in permanent and dramatic fashion, so keep an eye on these deeply depressed stocks for potential profits in the years ahead.
Please note that due to factors including low market capitalization and/or insufficient public float, we consider StemCells and Aastrom Biosciences to be small-cap stocks. You should be aware that such stocks are subject to more risk than stocks of larger companies, including greater volatility, lower liquidity and less publicly available information, and that postings such as this one can have an effect on their stock prices.
At the time of publication, Jon Markman did not own or control shares of companies mentioned in this column.
Jon D. Markman is editor of the independent investment newsletter The Daily Advantage. While Markman cannot provide personalized investment advice or recommendations, he appreciates your feedback;
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