Regeneration nation

Houston company uses stem cell technology to treat patients suffering from degenerative diseases

Celltex's stem cell technology has received positive results from its multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and rheumatoid arthritis patients. Courtesy of Celltex

The medical community has former governor Rick Perry to thank for a major stride in regenerative medicine.

"He had just gotten elected for the last time and he wanted to leave a legacy. He was tired of people going to Japan or Germany when they needed stem cells," recalls David Eller, chairman, co-founder and CEO of Celltex.

That was 2011, the year that the former president of Dupont Pharmeceuticals-Europe and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stanley Jones incorporated as Celltex. Perry got the law passed to make it legal to harvest his stem cells, and Jones implanted them while the governor was under the knife for a spinal fusion surgery.

Perry resigned from the Celltex board in 2017, but the truth is, the company no longer needed his clout. Just a year after its debut, the company had in excess of 200 clients, each paying a banking enrollment fee of $6,500. Now, there are close to 1,300.

From research to recovery
Eller is originally from Houston, and he says his hometown is the ideal home base for the company, with its access to the world's largest medical center. The Galleria-area office and lab employ 35 people, with about 50 workers worldwide.

Close to the same time that his friend Perry received his stem cells, Eller also had the treatment in hopes of resolving pain from a college football injury.

"I would go to work and put four to six Advil in my pocket," the CEO recalls.

Within months, all of them remained in his pocket.

But others have had even more dramatic results. Celltex checks in with patients three, six and nine months after their treatments to find out how they're doing. Eighty-three percent of multiple sclerosis patients have reported improvement of symptoms specific to their disease, as have 73 percent of Parkinson's sufferers. But the staggering fact is that 100 percent of 58 respondents with rheumatoid arthritis say they have benefited.

Implementation and the FDA
Celltex's chief scientific officer, Dr. Jane Young, co-authored a study of two severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis patients whose conditions didn't respond to standard treatments. After trying stem cells, both reported marked improvement in autonomic nervous system and immune function.

Stem cells are gathered through a patient's fat, which can be extracted at any of the 80 facilities around the country that partner with Celltex. The fat is processed at the Houston lab, where processing takes 30 to 35 days.

"We have 15 billion cells in process each day," says Erik Eller, the company's vice president of operations, clarifying that some clients' cells grow faster than others'.

It takes 14 days to come out of cryostasis and leave the lab. From there, the stem cells travel to Hospital Galenia in Cancun, Mexico for implantation, since the FDA categorizes stem cells as a drug if they have expanded as they do at Celltex. That means that a patient cannot use his own stem cells in the United States without a clinical trial. To circumnavigate the red tape, Celltex has simply partnered with the luxurious Mexican hospital.

This is currently the company's biggest challenge, says David Eller, but one he expects to overcome.

"We have very good relations with the US FDA," he says. "They are very interested in what we know. Our approach is really is very progressive and we've grown every year."

Ultimately, Eller hopes to be able to implant stem cells in the United States. But the company's foreign growth is a good start. Celltex is now operating in the Bahamas and is hoping to add Australian extraction facilities sometime this year. They are also in negotiations with a team from Saudi Arabia interested in expanding Celltex to the Middle East.

Other goals for Celltex include improvements both in the realms of sales and revenue and streamlining and improving the safety and efficacy of treatment. Research collaborations with Baylor College of Medicine and Texas A&M; will help with the company's medical credibility. This all may help to convince the FDA to allow the Celltex to get a biologics license, the final proof that it is not a drug company. But no matter how it's categorized, Celltex is growing exponentially as its cells.

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.