In recent months, Geron had seen the departure of key leaders, including the director of the stem-cell study, neuroscientist Ed Wirth, and its former CEO, Tom Okarma. “The writing was on the wall, but I am disappointed, because this could mean other companies will be a little more reluctant to follow their footsteps,” says Wise Young, an expert on spinal-cord injury at Rutgers University. Young estimated that there are still dozens of companies, mostly startups, working on potential stem-cell treatments.
The attempt to study stem cells in humans had proved stupendously expensive and slow-moving for Geron. The company estimated that it spent $45 million just to win FDA approval for the initial safety trial of its treatment, known as GRNOPC1. As of October, however, only four patients had been treated, and the company would have had to spend tens of millions more in order to finish the study.
GRNOPC1 consisted of a preparation of immature oligodendrocyte cells grown in the lab from embryonic precursors. While injections of such cells had been reported to help injured rats, Geron’s decision to test it in people had attracted scientific skeptics who believed GRNOPC1 was unlikely to work, and might even harm patients.
“A lot of experts in the field were surprised that they selected spinal-cord injury as their first application. There were not very good end points, and we knew it was going to be very difficult to show a biological effect,” says Robert Lanza, chief medical officer of Advanced Cell Technology. Advanced Cell, based in Marlborough, Massachusetts, is carrying out the only other FDA-approved trials using embryonic stem cells, which aim to treat macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes blindness. Lanza says Geron’s decision to quit the field “definitely puts a lot of pressure on us to deliver a success.”
In ending its stem-cell research, Geron will lay off 66 people, or 38 percent of its workforce.