Islet Transplantation: Businesses Are Booming

Even well-informed people with diabetes may not appreciate how many businesses have been found-ed to profit from the sale of islets to treat people suffering with Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus.

I know, because I founded more than one of them!

Some investors in my new company, Islet Sheet Medical, asked to be briefed on the various commercial efforts to develop islet transplantation because they found the history confusing. The diagram I prepared for them (below) is a schematic representation of how companies have been founded, grown, and shrunk; merged, or failed; or split into descendants following conflicts over direction and control.

Of course, most islet transplantation research takes place in academic centers supported by taxpayers. The diagram shows for-profit corporations that intend to manufacture and market diabetes therapeutic implants.

The key issue is isolation of islets of Langerhans (the cells that make insulin) from the immune system. An immune acceptable barrier is biocompatible, completely covers islets with a membrane having controlled permeability, has rapid oxygen and insulin diffusion kinetics, acceptable islet loss during fabrication, is as small as possible, and is retrievable. Transplant researchers recognize the need for an immune acceptable barrier; they agree that given a reliable islet supply, an immune-acceptable barrier is virtually a cure for the disease. These companies compete to make the best immune barrier.

The diagram shows the evolution of the islet business through time, flowing from left to right. The width of each colored zone represents the waxing and waning of the company’s efforts. Companies disappear through merger (Baxter and TranCel became neocrin (sic.)) or by sale of their technology (TranCel acquired Damon Biotech’s technology). Companies originate from technology licensed from a University (e.g., Damon, TransTech) or from technology developed from other projects (e.g., BioHybrid’s adaptation of Amicon’s hollow fiber technology).

The diagram reaches the present where we find six significant commercial efforts are underway. Five companies have disappeared through merger, sale of technology or failure.

The most prolific organization has been Kent Cochrum’s research group at the University of California (yellow-green zone, third from bottom). Although an academic operation, technology owned by the University of California to make conforming coatings has spawned or inspired six for-profit companies. Research at the University of California is currently sponsored by Islet Technology of Minneapolis, Minnesota (orange), which has licensed the technology owned by the Regents of the University of California. The previous sponsor, TransTech Medical of Hayward, Calif. (green; now merged with Metabolex), severed its research relationship with the University of California in 1993. The dispute between TransTech and UC over control of the coating technology (settled in 1994) led not only to the founding of Islet Technology, but also the founding of Islet Sheet Medical, Inc. of San Francisco (red).

BioHybrid of Massachusetts (yellow-orange) is one of the oldest efforts. The company has pursued a variety of approaches, of which the first was an adaptation of kidney dialysis hollow fiber technology.

Perhaps the most controversial effort has been Patrick Soon- Shiong’s, sponsored by the Foundation for Transplant Research in Los Angeles (dark red). Using technology originally developed over fifteen years ago by Frank Lim at the University of Virginia, he has implanted alginate (seaweed polymer) encapsulated islets. Dr. Soon-Shiong was the founder of TranCel (purple), but left that company after a disagreement with business management.

After his departure, TranCel was combined with Baxter Applied Sciences’ technology (blue) to form what is probably the largest commercial effort, “neocrin” company of Irvine, Calif. (purple). Having decided to focus its own research on neurological diseases, Cyto-Therapeutics of Providence, R.I. sold its islet technology to neocrin. Neocrin boasts to having the greatest density of academic islet research heavyweights, including two neocrin corporate officers, David Scharp and Orion Hegre.

Some friends and I recently founded Islet Sheet Medical. Our approach involves a transplant consisting of living islets and a permeable film barrier in a thin sheet configuration that remains functional for a prolonged period following implantation and, importantly, can be easily removed. Based on our many years in islet research we believe that the company that controls the best barrier technology will have the greatest leverage in the emerging islet transplant market, and that this sheet is the optimal configuration.

Mr. Metabolism would be delighted to say more about islet implants if readers could send him specific questions at SCOTT@REXHOME.WIN.NET, or care of DIABETES HEALTH.

Scott Robert King (no relation to DIABETES HEALTH Publisher Scott M. King) has a long history of diabetes related entrepreneurial activity. He was educated in biochemistry at the University of Chicago and Harvard University. He wrote the first major report on Wall Street on the future of dibaetes therapy. He recently founded Islet Sheet Medical with Rich Antanavich, Randy Dorian and Bill Usinger.

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