The exciting potential of stem cell research

Following a string of breakthroughs in stem cell research, we are embarking upon new partnerships targeting areas of high unmet medical need. Chief Scientific Officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen reflects on the recent achievements of his team and considers the potential to deliver curative stem cell-based therapies for type 1 diabetes and other chronic diseases.

What partnerships can achieve

Mattias Hansson is working with stem cell research at Novo Nordisk

By Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

Published 16 May 2018

What partnerships can achieve

After two decades of intense stem cell research we’re now at a turning point in translating our efforts into potential treatments for people with serious chronic diseases.

As someone who has been on this journey from the beginning, I feel proud of what we have achieved so far, and I would like to share my thoughts about our next chapter in developing stem cell-based therapies.

A recent, big breakthrough happened about a year ago when we cracked one of the hardest nuts of all in the search for a cure of type 1 diabetes: we were able to transform stem cells to glucose-sensing, insulin-secreting beta cells, just like those produced in the pancreas of a healthy person.

We showed that we could implant cells that were differentiated from embryonic stem cells into mice with type 1 diabetes and basically make the animals normal.

That wasn’t all. Collaborating with Lund University and BioLamina, we were also able to convert the stem cells into dopamine-producing neurons that have the potential to one day treat Parkinson’s disease in a curative manner.

Again in partnership with BioLamina and alongside the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, we made heart cells that in future could help to treat chronic heart failure. Importantly, these achievements can be repeated efficiently, robustly and consistently.

Focus on partnerships

The true opportunity of this work lies in the potential for us to take our understanding of stem cell differentiation and combine that with our world-class expertise in mammalian cell production. After all, we have a heritage of using the highest quality standards to cultivate mammalian cells, harvest the secreted proteins and industrialize that process with patient safety at the absolute forefront of our minds.

We’re highly focused on maximising this opportunity for the benefit of people with serious chronic diseases. That’s why I’m delighted that we will now be partnering with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to develop good manufacturing practice (GMP) compliant cell lines.  We will also actively seek additional external partnerships with specialty therapy leaders, so we can make the optimal development and commercialisation models.

What drives all of us here at Novo Nordisk is the welfare of patients. So, what does all this mean for them? When I look ahead, I hope that in a few years’ time, we will have commenced trials in humans of stem cell-based therapies within type 1 diabetes. And we hope to also have a number of other early stage development programmes, many of which we’ll work on with external partners.

Adopting the highest possible ethical standards

We respect the fact that stem cell research raises questions in people’s minds and we understand there are many different views regarding the use of these cells. Our position is that we must act according to the highest ethical standards and put the life and health of patients in the forefront of everything we do. We are pursuing this technology platform to develop stem cell based therapies in areas of high unmet medical need, where there is good justification for the benefits as well as a thorough assessment of the potential risks.

This is particularly important in a disease such as type 1 diabetes where we have to ensure that the stem cell-based therapy is not only effective but is providing an overall favourable risk-benefit profile compared to existing treatment.

We have made significant steps forward in the field of stem cell-based therapies. We have consciously not said too much about this until now since there is still some way to go before we can introduce our own cell therapies on the market. But I can now say with some justification that we are getting closer to a clinical reality. We’ve created a solid network in the scientific community for stem cell research and now it is time to broaden it further and collaborate with a range of partners for the benefit of the many patients around the world.

For more information, contact  Adam Pittard , Corporate Editor. 

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