Viacord, a Cambridge, Mass., company founded in 1993, provides a cord blood banking service for $1,650 per birth and $125 per year for storage. The cord blood collected after birth can be stored in the event the infant or a relative needs the cells later in life.
In 2000, Viacord merged with a new company, ViaCell, a more research-based venture with the goal of developing proprietary cord blood stem cell therapy candidates. “It’s a hybrid business,” says Mark Beer, president and CEO of ViaCell. Though ViaCell has several hundred umbilical cords to use for research purposes, it is not the cord blood itself that supports the research. Rather, it is the profits and expertise gained from the banking business that make Viacord successful.
“In a sense, we pay for our own research and development. Cord blood banking is a profitable business creating a positive cash flow,” says Beer. In 2004, ViaCell’s total revenue was more than $38 million and in the first two quarters of 2005 total revenue each surpassed $10 million.
Adorned with beautiful baby pictures, the Viacord Web site claims that the chance of a relative of a cord blood donor being diagnosed with a disease treatable by the banked cells is 1 in 100. These odds will become 1 in 2, the site continues, if cord blood stem cells could be used to treat stroke and heart disease. However, these odds recently took a serious blow.
In September, ViaCell announced the suspension of enrollment in its Phase I clinical trial of transplanting a cord blood stem cell product as a treatment for several cancers. Of the eight patients who completed treatment in the study, two experienced acute graft-versus-host disease, a potential side effect in transplantation.
While stem cells are an exciting new field, Beer acknowledges the science must undergo the same maturation as other kinds of biotechnology, such as protein production or monoclonal antibodies. He did not mention gene therapy as an example. -- M.M.
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