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 researchers are commercializing their organ 3D printing technology. Jordan Miller/Rice University

There may come a time when you or someone you love is in need of a new pair of lungs. Or perhaps it's a liver. It's not a scenario anyone dreams of, but thanks to Houston company Volumetric, you may never end up on a waiting list. Instead, that organ is made to order and 3D printed using a mix of medical plastics and human cells.

And this possibility isn't necessarily in the distant future. On the cover of the May 3 issue of the journal Science, is a contraption that looks a bit like a futuristic beehive. It's a working air sac complete with blood vessels, the beginnings of a technology that is perhaps only a decade from being implanted in humans. And it was crafted on a 3D printer in Jordan Miller's lab at Rice University.

Yes, there are shades of another Houston story — Denton Cooley's implantation of the first artificial heart — but Cooley only inserted the organ. Miller and his bioengineering graduate student Bagrat Grigoryan are primed to profit from their inventions.

In 2018, they started Volumetric Inc., a company that sells both the hydrogel solutions used for printing organs like theirs and the printers themselves. Touring Miller's lab in the Houston Medical Center is a visual timeline of his team's progress designing printers. The version being manufactured is a slick little number, small enough to fit under chemical exhaust hoods, but fitted with everything necessary to print living tissues. It's made and sold in cooperation with CellInk, a larger bioprinting company.

"Our technology is based on projection," Miller explains. Specifically, it's stereolithography, a type of 3D printing that produces the finished product layer-by-layer. Shining colored light of the right intensity turns the polymers into a solid gel.

But why start a company when Miller and Grigoryan are already busy with research?

"If we want to do translational research, commercialization is important," reasons Miller. "We need to build the market to get that technology into the world."

Miller explains that usually the inventor of a technology is the best one to bring it to market.

"When we were building this technology in the lab we saw the potential for commercialization," he recalls. "We do see that this technology is highly scalable. We do think it can have a positive impact on tissue models in a lab."

Those tissue models could one day make not just scientists, but also animal rights activists, very happy. With the technology that Volumetric is developing, scientists could eventually print human cells so well that animal models would be far less accurate in predicting the success that the product being tested would have on humans.

As academics, though, Miller and Grigoryan weren't sure how to start a company. Fortunately, there is the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its I-Corps program. The pair spent a couple of weeks doing a regional program that taught scientists how to commercialize their technology.

"They want to see funded research get out of the lab," Miller says, explaining that they moved on to the national I-Corps program while Miller was on sabbatical from teaching at Rice, allowing them to interview potential customers.

This gave them the confidence to launch last year. Grigoryan now works full-time at the Med Center incubator and accelerator, Johnson & Johnson's JLabs. He has a team of two other scientists on staff.

"It would have been a lot harder to get started if we didn't have a space like JLabs available," Miller says. It also helps, he adds, that JLabs takes no equity, only helping the fledgling brand to finalize its market and get hooked in with potential investors.

Volumetric has its demo units ready to go and expects to start shipping printers in late June, pending final certifications.

"We believe we have technology to make organ replacements for people," Miller says.

And someday soon, long waits for a new set of lungs and a life of antirejection drugs could be a thing of the past.


Rice University bioengineers (from left) Bagrat Grigoryan, Jordan Miller and Daniel Sazer and collaborators created a breakthrough bioprinting technique that could speed development of technology for 3D printing replacement organs and tissues. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University