NZ biotech, Living Cell Technologies, wins research deal from US giant

By Grant Jacobs 02/01/2010

It’s good to see a local biotechnology company making progress. (I also hope further research money comes to New Zealand…)

The deal appears to be one where Centocor, a research and development subsidiary of the US-based pharmaceutical giant, Johnston & Johnston, gets an exclusive two-year option to take up the worldwide licence for the company’s seaweed-derived encapsulation technology specifically for human cells in exchange for paying for Living Cell Technologies’ research using the technology over the next two years. The arrangement appears to be renewable on a two-yearly basis.

The original story can be read on the website.

According to the Living Cell Technologies’ website, the company has been developing what might be called “cell transplant technologies”, a seaweed-based extract (alginate) that when coated on the surface of pig cells, the pig cells can be transplanted into humans without them being rejected by the patient’s immune system. (Image to left taken from Aaron Small’s article on Living Cell Technologies.)

In this way, for example, pig cells that secrete insulin might be safely transplanted in order to treat diabetes. Other diseases they are investigating treatment of are Huntington’s disease and deafness.

Australia has recently lifted a ban on xenotransplants (transplants of cells, organs or tissues from one species, e.g. pigs, to another), which may allow Living Cell Technologies to extend it’s operations there, as Alison’s earlier article touches on. Alison’s earlier thoughts on xenotransplantation give a little background to transplantation efforts and issues.

The origin of their pigs is also interesting, being descended from feral pigs from the isolated Auckland Islands, a move aimed at reducing the likelihood of endogenous viral infections within the pigs, a concern raised by opponents of the use of foreigns cells, such as the Vatican. These pigs are a valuable source: apparently they are regarded as the only virus-free pigs in the world.

I’m having trouble getting definitive details, mainly because my time is limited, but I imagine what these news sources really mean is that these pigs do not carry porine (pig) retrovirus, but have simplified this to “virus-free”, which is a broader meaning. (Details matter and the MSM are poor at getting them right…) These viruses can be carried in the genome (where they go by the acronym PERVs, porcine endogenous retrovirus) and can be passed down to the next generation.

Because these retroviruses can potentially infect humans, they have been a concern for transplants from pigs. Some studies report that the rate of infection of human cells by PERVs is low and that no transmission in practice has been observed. If you accept these results, it might be argued that this is a theoretical concern rather than an actual problem. Regardless of which side you stand on and the extent to which this is an actual issue as opposed to conceptual possibility, this concern has been a major road-block to developing treatments based on pig cells and these pigs provide a practical way around this.

The back story how these pigs where acquired is itself interesting. 17 of these pigs were removed for breeding in a private initiative that stirred local politics (see article), with the remainder killed by DoC (Department of Conservation).

Other articles on Xenotransplantation and Living Cell Technologies on sciblogs
(These articles also contain links to further information elsewhere.)

an update on xenotransplantation (bioBlog, Alison Campbell)

Living Cell Technologies (the scientist nz, Aaron Small)

Living Cell Technologies (the scientist nz, Aaron Small)

Other science posts on Code for life:

Retrospective–The mythology of bioinformatics

Bioinformatics — computing with biotechnology and molecular biology data

Computational biology: Natural history v. explanatory models

Genetic tests and personalised medicine

Metagenomics-finding organisms from their genomes

Monkey business, or is my uncle also my Dad?

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