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GenCure has markings of San Antonio biotech success
March 16, 2012

GenCure's Mary Beth Fisk says the San Antonio organization has only "scratched the surface" in its quest to play an international role in regenerative medicine. Photo by:Erik Reyna, San Antonio Business Journal

By W. Scott Bailey, San Antonio Business Journal

One might confuse a description of the work GenCure is performing with the premise for a new science-fiction thriller, but the San Antonio organization is actually engaged in real science that is expected to help transform health care.

The nonprofit, launched as an arm of the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center last August, has become a key player in the regenerative medicine arena and is now looking to take on a larger role nationally and internationally.

Regenerative medicine has been defined as a rapidly evolving interdisciplinary field that translates fundamental knowledge in biology, chemistry and physics into materials, devices, systems and therapeutic strategies - including cell-based therapies that augment, repair, replace or regenerate organs and tissues.

GenCure's focus is providing expertise in cell and tissue services for regenerative medicine - including patient treatment and clinical research. One such potential being studied is the use of certain cells from umbilical cord blood to improve brain activity in stroke victims.

"Those components of cellular therapies and tissue engineering are very unique to regenerative medicine," says Mary Beth Fisk, president and chief operating officer for the Blood & Tissue Center and GenCure. "That's what GenCure is all about."

GenCure is also supporting clinical research. It has already teamed up with a number of researchers and is involved in multiple clinical trials in the U.S. - and in other parts of the world, including Brazil and China.

One of GenCure's collaborations is with the University of Illinois and involves the restoration of specialized cells as part of a treatment for Type I diabetes.

GenCure's participation in regenerative medicine could create more opportunities for the organization and for San Antonio. It's successes will draw more attention to a city aspiring to play a larger role in the biosciences.

"We're just scratching the surface," Fisk says. "There are a number of things that we are working on."

Future treatments
GenCure presently operates as a division of the Blood & Tissue Center, which is set up as a nonprofit. GenCure's operations are located in the Blood & Tissue Center's headquarters in Northwest San Antonio. But Fisk says one of her priorities is to expand GenCure.

The Blood & Tissue Center's 2010 revenues totaled more than $66 million, according to the nonprofit's most recent Form 990 filing with the IRS.

Its total fund balance (or net assets) stood at $61 million as of year-end 2010. Revenues for the Blood & Tissue Center and for GenCure were not available for 2011.

Dr. Paul Sanberg, director of the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida, says he is in discussions with GenCure about a research relationship that would involve the use of umbilical cord blood to treat neurological disorders.

"Regenerative medicine is absolutely important for providing future treatments and cures for debilitating injuries and diseases that we have no long-term treatments for - such as diabetes and Alzheimers," Sanberg explains. "To be able to harness the body's self-repair mechanisms and develop cell and drug treatments is critical for the future of personalized medicine."

Sanberg expects that GenCure will play a vital role in these efforts.

"They have the dedication and foresight to realize that personalized therapies for the next decades will involve expertise that they have," says Sanberg about GenCure. "They also know that to be successful they will need to partner with the best groups in the world. That's something they have already started with significant success."

Officials with the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine say the work that organizations like GenCure are doing and the progress they are making represents a "paradigm shift" in health care.

"Regenerative medicine is transformative health care technology that will change the way medicine is practiced and how we treat disease," says Michael Werner, co-founder and executive director of the alliance.

Dr. Stephen Badylak, deputy director of preclinical studies for the University of Pittsburgh's McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is serving as an adviser to GenCure and says the organization has an "excellent opportunity to make a significant contribution to this field."

Can they have a global impact?
"Absolutely," he says. "This is an ideal setup for success. The organizations that get out there first can easily become recognized as the big players."

Says Fisk, "We certainly feel that GenCure has the potential to make a significant impact on lives and on medical intervention. We will continue to pursue those particular projects that have the greatest value in helping people."

Elevated profile
Ten years ago, cord blood transplants, for example, could be used to treat fewer than a half-dozen diseases.

Currently, such transplants can be used to treat more than 100 diseases, according to Fisk.

"Regenerative medicine products already on the market have demonstrated efficacy in treating complications from diabetes and cartilage repair," Werner says. "That's just the tip of the iceberg. There are over 200 products currently in clinical trials to treat stroke, heart disease, macular degeneration, kidney disease and cancer."

Last May, U.S. Reps. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced House Resolution 1862, better known as the Regenerative Medicine Promotion Act of 2011. Bilbray has argued that the proposed legislation would allow the U.S. to "advance toward innovative, life-saving therapies and create the regulatory infrastructure necessary to encourage private investment in promising regenerative medicine research."

Werner says the bill still has life.

Ann Stevens, president of BioMed SA, says GenCure has already had an impact on San Antonio.

"GenCure's focus on regenerative medicine is already elevating San Antonio's profile around the nation and the world," she says. "Having these kinds of leading-edge resources here in San Antonio has helped attract renowned researchers."

Fisk contends that GenCure will have a greater impact.

"As we continue to see growth, and as new applications are developed ... there will be new opportunities that arise," she says.

"We will continue to build those relationships globally, to expand our role," Fisk adds. "We want to be able to reach out with the expertise and knowledge that is housed here with this organization in San Antonio and offer solutions within the area of regenerative medicine nationally and internationally."

GenCure Established: August 2011 President: Mary Beth Fisk Headquarters: 6211 I-10 West, San Antonio Structure: Created as an arm of the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center Role: Core focus is providing cell and tissue services and expertise to the regenerative medicine industry

 

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