In big shift Dr. Robert Lanza exits Astellas

The recent news of Vertex Pharma buying small stem cell biotech ViaCyte and Doug Melton moving to Vertex brought to mind an old stem cell biotech called Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) and its leader, stem cell biologist Dr. Robert Lanza.

Years ago, big pharma firm Astellas bought ACT and Lanza moved to be a leader of regenerative medicine efforts at Astellas. The idea was that Astellas would pursue ACT’s experimental human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-based macular degeneration therapy. This effort was already in clinical trials.

What’s up with Astellas and Lanza today?

Advanced Cell Technology and its leader Dr. Robert Lanza

Dr. Robert Lanza
Stem cell biologist Dr. Robert Lanza.

First a little stem cell research history.

Some readers of The Niche will remember that Advanced Cell Technology was a huge deal in its day.

In addition to macular degeneration, ACT had other interesting areas of basic and clinical research as well. I thought their technology to pluck one cell from a human embryo to establish a line was interesting, for instance.

Robert Lanza was a bit of a rock star in the stem cell field for years too. ACT regularly made headlines. If you don’t know Bob’s story as a stem cell biologist, just Google him and you can read up on this unusual path. That story started with him as a teenager, messing around in his basement on chicken genetics.

When Astellas acquired ACT, it was known as Ocata by that time.

Astellas and stem cells for macular degeneration

Where do things stand now with Astellas?

It’s been very quiet over these seven years. I regularly get questions from readers of The Niche on what’s up with both the old ACT pipeline now at Astellas and what’s new with Lanza.

While Astellas now has trial listings on for stem cells for macular degeneration including one active trial (not recruiting), nothing has been reported.

The wheels may be turning behind the scenes though. I hope so as the work was promising.

Robert Lanza exit from Astellas

The last time I got an update was a brief comment from Lanza five years ago. So I started wondering where things are now, especially after the Vertex acquisition of ViaCyte brought the old acquisition to mind.

With a little research and help from a friend, I found that Lanza quietly left Astellas in February of this year. I’m not sure what impact that could have.

Also, what is the reason for Lanza moving on? Does it have any meaning for the macular degeneration work? Here’s the Astellas page mentioning the end of his tenure there, with the key passage translated to English:

“By making Ocata a wholly owned subsidiary in 2016, we won a lead program in the field of ophthalmology. At that time, Ocata was a US bio-venture with about 30 people, but it has already induced differentiation of stem cells. We have a lot of research achievements in our research. Okata’s technology has contributed greatly to our clinical trials, and Robert Lanza of Okata, known as one of the world’s leading scientists in cell medicine. Dr. (Robert Lanza) was the CSO (Chief Scientific Officer) of AIRM until February 2022, leading our research and development. “

Looking ahead: Robert Lanza, biocentrism, new novel

I hope Bob Lanza starts a new company or pushes forward in a fresh way on biomedical research.

He has a relatively new book. He’s becoming well known for his writing on biocentrism as well. See a video of Bob explaining this theory above.

Also, he has co-authored a sci-fi novel due out early in 2023 so he may be focusing more on writing.

Getting back to the clinical science, maybe we’ll hear some encouraging news on that stem cell trial for vision loss soon from Astellas. I’ve reached out to the company to get a comment on where things stand or do a short Q&A.

Stay tuned.

6 thoughts on “In big shift Dr. Robert Lanza exits Astellas”

  1. Andrew D. Blidy

    Paul can you speak to UDC technology from John’s link

    Building toward the future—developing a cell therapy platform
    Astellas’ Focus Area Approach identifies high-priority areas for us to invest our resources. Specific fields are prioritized after multiple new drug candidates have been discovered and the leading compound has progressed to the clinical stage, and we designate them as the Primary Focus.

    The four initiatives currently designated as Primary Focus are Blindness & Regeneration, Mitochondria Biology, Genetic Regulation, and Immuno-Oncology. The cell therapy platform was primarily used only for the Primary Focus Blindness & Regeneration, but now is being used in multiple Primary Focus such as Immuno-Oncology and Mitochondria Biology. We have successfully expanded our pipeline for the past three years. We are working to develop a cell therapy platform that can be applied to various disease areas by 2025.


    Goto explains that the company is currently in the first wave of cell therapy R&D. “First we have to ensure that we connect leading programs to patient treatment and establish the foundations of a value chain. Then, by utilizing technology to prevent immune rejection—a large issue with allogenic PSC-derived differentiated cells—we are building a path toward the second wave of products.”

    At the core of the second wave is Universal Donor Cell (UDC) technology developed by Universal Cells Inc., a company acquired by Astellas in 2018. UDC technology can be used to create cell therapy products that can be administered to any recipient without the need for Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) matching. The technology is based on gene editing by rAAV (recombinant Adeno-Associated Virus) and cell engineering of pluripotent stem cells. By utilizing this technology, we will be able to expand the platform to fields other than ophthalmology, such as autoimmune diseases, cancer, and mitochondria diseases.

    During the third wave of cell therapy R&D, we aim to combine pluripotent stem cell technology and gene editing or gene augmentation techniques to create next-generation, enhanced-function cells. Goto explains that Astellas is just at the start of this journey:

    “The basic science has only just begun, but we will pursue the possibilities of cell therapy that uses previously unseen functions. For example, inserting trophic factors that are released when functions contained in cells operate to make nearby cells healthy.”

    Cell therapy is a next-generation modality that is garnering much global attention. At Astellas, our development of cell therapy using donor-derived pluripotent stem cells is a source of great pride, and our team is at the global forefront in this field. We will endeavor to further enrich and strengthen the team alongside actively adopting cutting-edge science to realize the groundbreaking potential of cell therapy.

    Message from Dr. Robert Lanza (the Chief Scientific Officer of AIRM*)
    Dr. Robert Lanza (the Chief Scientific Officer of AIRM)
    I’m responsible for managing and providing strategic direction and leadership for development of cell-based regenerative medicine products across multiple therapeutic areas. I work closely with the leadership and research teams at AIRM to develop and implement the Astellas/AIRM Regenerative Medicine (RM) scientific vision and deliver cutting-edge biological science. This entails working closely with other Astellas research, regulatory, and clinical colleagues, as well as with leading academic teams throughout the world. Through my role in RM, I aim pursue the far-reaching potential of stem cell therapies and to treat diseases in a bold new way—diseases for which there are currently no cures.
    *As of February 2022, he serves as a consultant to AIRM.

  2. Inga Andersdotter

    Thank you so much for giving us some updates on the AMD front with Bob Lanza and Astellas. AMD is one of the major issues driving people to questionable stem cells clinics. So just giving people fresh information and some kind of hope for a timeline for when treatments actually may happen could save huge amounts of grief, money, and bad health outcomes. People won’t waste their money and time and emotional capital on clinics if they can just get some kind of reliable information, some kind of hope that effective treatments will exist in our lifetimes. Please, please keep writing about this.

  3. Hi Paul and, Andy…I hope Bob (Lanza) is in good health and doing well…I was researching Astellas recently…Trying to determine if they could have a possible interest in Athersys (ATHX)? During that research I discovered this note re Bob at this Astellas Link - (*As of February 2022, he (Robert Lanza) serves as a consultant to AIRM.)

  4. Andrew D. Blidy

    well maybe Bob can get to open science , again …plus Astellas is starting new division in South San Francisco

Leave a Reply