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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

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