I’ve been blogging about stem cells now for about 8 years and the recent level of hype about and fluffy media coverage of Celularity, the biotech spun out of Celgene, ranks right up here with the most extreme past cases I’ve seen.
What is Celularity and who is its leadership?
It’s a new biotech focused on placental stem cells with some familiar, well-known leaders including Bob Hariri and Peter Diamandis, and famous tech names on their board including John Scully and Bill Maris, along with past FDA Commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach. And this company expresses some big aspirations via stem cells.
- Extend human life by decades.
- Fight cancer through CAR-T cells.
- Treat Crohn’s disease.
- And much more.
And this all will be achieved through the apparent unprecedented power of one particular kind of cells: placental stem cells.
You can see a screenshot below of just some of the media coverage popping up on Google News.
The statements by Celularity’s leadership are not just ambitious in terms of the types of conditions and diseases to tackle, but also the short target timeline to take them to patients. For example, FierceBiotech has this surprising quote:
“Hariri said that the company “anticipates rolling treatments out through partner clinics within the next four years,” although he says that timeline “may change” as it collects more data.”
Just four years? That would seem to necessitate not getting an IND from the FDA or going through the clinical trials process.
What exactly are these partner “clinics”?
To my knowledge, placental stem cells are going to require an IND (wouldn’t their isolation from placenta likely be a drug manufacturing process? And the cells are going to be used in an allogeneic manner by definition, their uses are almost always going to be non-homologous, etc.) so how can they start selling them through clinics in just a few years? I hope that particular plan, should it materialize, won’t be like the stem cell clinics out there that transplant cells into patients without FDA approvals.
Overall, could the company be at risk of overselling placental stem cells? This other quote from the FierceBiotech piece might suggest so:
“When asked what evidence the company had that a placenta-based therapy could work, Hariri responded: “The placenta is the most powerful resource known to medicine.”
By chance, I happen to help teach about placenta in our med school histology course so I know a fair amount about it. Placenta is a cool tissue and somewhat unexplored territory relative to other organs. It has some unique immune properties as well. In addition, Hariri also has quite a few interesting research articles (note that a few of these articles on PubMed may be by someone else with a similar name) on placenta and other related materials. However, placenta is the most powerful resource known to medicine? Why?
This placenta buzz related to Celularity reminds me of the famous scene in the movie The Graduate where the older guy gives the young man played by Dustin Hoffman advice about the future “Just one word: Plastics.” (see clip below) But here with Celularity and its media coverage, the quote would be “Just one word: Placentas!”
Unfortunately, FierceBiotech’s piece misses the boat on some of the science here with statements like this, which isn’t a quote from Celularity, but is just stated as fact:
“Unlike embryonic stem cells, placental cells are incredibly pure, meaning they can be taken from any placenta and injected into any human without the risk of the body rejecting them.”
What is meant here by “pure”?
Unlikely to trigger an immune response?
To me as a stem cell biologist this seems like an odd word to use in that context. Purity would refer properly to homogeneity. Also, getting back to the immunity idea, it is debatable at best to make a blanket statement that placental stem cells have no risk of rejection in any human into which they are injected. That’s very unlikely to be the case so broadly.
Practically speaking, it turns out that Celularity not only has $250 million in capital, but also owns the stem cell bank firm, LifeBankUSA, which apparently can generate millions in profits to serve as fuel for Celularity’s many other efforts. This gives them a leg up on many otherwise similar stem cell biotechs.
Notably, some of the media coverage of Celularity has been more balanced including this piece by Matthew Herper, which appropriately ends this way:
“Those are big promises. At the least, it won’t be boring.”
We’ll have to see how things turn out, but the overall hype here has raised expectations so sky-high that they’re going to be difficult if not impossible for Celularity to meet. As Herper said, at least it won’t be boring to watch Celularity’s efforts.