Al Gore on board for $20M stem cell venture

Former vice president Al Gore is entering the stem cell arena with an announcement today of a $20 million biotech venture in the hot area of "induced pluripotent" stem cells.

Induced cells are attracting interest from researchers and biotech firms as an alternative to embryonic stem cells. Induced cells are made by inserting four genes into ordinary skin cells, and they offer a new path for "regenerative" medical treatments.

"I just think it's a very important breakthrough that is filled with promise and hope," says Gore, a partner with the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, which is backing the research. "I think this is one of those good news stories that comes along every once in a while."

The cell technology company, iZumi Bio Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., will collaborate with Kyoto University's Shinya Yamanaka, who in 2006 demonstrated the induced cells could be produced by "reprogramming" skin cells into embryonic cell look-alikes, with similar potential to grow into organ tissues for transplants.

Human embryonic stem cells are controversial because their creation requires the destruction of early-stage embryos. Induced cells do not, making them attractive test beds for analyzing the effect of new drugs on diseased cells. And like embryonic cells, they may someday replace organ tissues for patients with ailments ranging from heart disease to diabetes, say cell scientists.

"It's great that Al Gore supports iPS research, but who doesn't? Even the pope and the Catholic Church are on board," says stem cell researcher Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. "Gore's support underscores the urgency and importance of moving this research forward."

In Congress, Gore chaired hearings on medical uses of cell technologies. Since the 2000 presidential election, Gore has also starred in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth about global warming, started a cable channel and served on the board of directors of Apple Inc.

In the stem cell collaboration, Kyoto University and iZumi will focus on cells with genetic markers for Parkinson's, spinal muscular atrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) in a bid to industrialize their production.

"It's exciting for the patients and their families that currently have limited therapies available," Gore says. "The trans-Pacific collaboration is likely to dramatically accelerate the drug discovery process."

Lanza, whose firm made waves in 2001 in a mixed success with cloning human embryonic stem cells, is more cautious. "Stem cell companies haven't fared very well in the past," he says.

Most new ventures, like the iZumi effort, focus on drug discoveries that appear in a petri dish, rather than those requiring Food and Drug Administration approval for medical experiments, he adds.

"So yes, this is far more representative of the stem cell ventures being set up today."

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