Home-grown biomedical company CellResearch Corporation, which has developed stem cell treatments for severe burns and injuries, has made its first advances into the multibillion-dollar international wound care market.
Working with American stem cell research leader the University of Colorado, it is starting trials to treat patients with diabetic wounds in the United States.
"This is a dream come true," said the company's group chief executive officer Gavin Tan. "We believe this is the first step towards less pain and better quality of life for those with diabetic wounds, burns and chronic bedsores."
A WEALTH OF POSSIBILITIES
By mining the umbilical cord lining, usually discarded when a woman gives birth, researchers have tapped into a rich source of stem cells versatile enough to transform into many of the body's cells.
A big advantage is that the cells do not have to be taken from days-old embryos - a controversial source of stem cells, which can transform into any cell the body needs.
Singapore company CellResearch Corporation is behind the discovery that stem cells can be harvested from the umbilical cord lining.
It has been granted 35 patents worldwide, including in the United States, Britain and China, for its process of collecting and cultivating the cells.
Its research has shown how such stem cells can transform into skin, bone and fat cells, among other cells, and it is working with 11 groups in Singapore and abroad to tap the potential of such stem cells to treat ailments ranging from Parkinson's to heart disease and hearing loss.
The company has partnered cord blood banks to provide postnatal tissue storage, and has a skin-care range Calecim - made from the proteins and nutrients which the stem cells live in.
CellResearch also owns one of the world's largest private skin, scar and keloid cell libraries to provide researchers with processed tissue and cells.
Diabetic wounds are notoriously difficult to heal, and these injuries can remain open for months, running the risk of infection, gangrene and even amputation.
CellResearch, set up in 2002 by Singapore clinician-scientists and investors, discovered that the umbilical cord lining, normally discarded after childbirth, contains a treasure trove of two types of stem cells - epithelial stem cells which can transform into tissue lining, and mesenchymal stem cells which are key to bone and organ repair.
The company has already done small-scale trials in Vietnam on people with severe burns, who were able to grow fresh skin without the need for painful skin grafts.
But the US$10 million (S$13.5 million) collaboration with the Colorado University's school of medicine and its ClinImmune Labs will take the treatment closer to patients, said Mr Tan.
For a start, to test for safety and efficacy, about 60 patients will be treated with the stem cells, which are grown on scaffolds and transferred onto the wounds.
Wound healing is seen as an
area which will reap the rewards of stem cell research early, and groups worldwide are looking at a variety of stem cells and methods to do so.
But CellResearch appears to be a front runner because so many more stem cells can be taken from the umbilical cord lining, it is easy to grow them in the lab in large quantities, and these foreign cells are not rejected by patients.
Professor Brian Freed of the school's division of allergy and clinical immunology will head the new clinical trial. He said: "Mesenchymal stem cells are being isolated from a number of different tissues, such as fat and bone marrow, but CellResearch discovered a means by which they can be grown and purified much more readily.
"I think this development will greatly advance the use of these cells in the clinic."
The company is also working with 11 other groups in Singapore and internationally to harness stem cells for treatments for a variety of conditions, from Parkinson's disease to hearing loss and heart repair.
CellResearch, valued at more than $600 million last year, has 35 patents worldwide.