“In the current environment of capital scarcity and uncertain economic conditions, we intend to focus our resources on advancing our . . . two novel and promising oncology drug candidates,” John A. Scarlett, Geron’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This would not be possible if we continue to fund the stem cell programs at the current levels.”
The company also announced that it was eliminating 66 full-time positions, representing 38 percent of its workforce.
Another company continues to test a second embryonic stem cell therapy in people. But Geron’s announcement marked a major setback and disappointment, researchers and advocates said.
“While stem cells are proving invaluable for research, translating the promising science into new therapies is a slow, painstaking process with many setbacks,” said George Q. Daley, a leading stem cell researcher at Harvard Medical School. “A safe first trial would have paved the way for many others to follow.”
The announcement Monday was a particular blow to advocates of research into spinal cord injuries and patients suffering from paralysis. The study was testing the treatment on partially paralyzed patients.
“I’m disgusted. It makes me sick,” said Daniel Heumann, who is on the board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. “To get people’s hopes up and then do this for financial reasons is despicable. They’re treating us like lab rats.”
Human embryonic stem cell research has been the focus of intense excitement and acrimonious public debate, but it has so far shown promise only in animal and laboratory studies. The Geron study was the first government-sanctioned attempt to test a therapy using the cells in people.
Although the company will not treat any additional patients, researchers will continue to follow the four patients treated so far, “accruing data and updating FDA and the medical community on their progress,” Geron said. The company is also “seeking partners with the technical and financial resources to enable further development” of its stem cell therapy, it said.
Many scientists think embryonic stem cells could represent one of the most important advances in medicine. Because the cells can morph into virtually any cell or tissue, researchers hope they will eventually produce cures for a host of ailments, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and paralysis.
But the field is fraught with political, moral and ethical controversies. Days-old embryos have been destroyed to obtain the cells, which critics consider immoral. After many delays, the Food and Drug Administration last year approved two experiments testing therapies created from embryonic stem cells in humans, including a study testing Geron’s experimental treatment on 10 patients partially paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. Both studies were designed primarily to determine whether the approach is safe.