The 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine went to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their discovery of how to transform ordinary adult skin cells into cells that, like embryonic stem cells, are capable of developing into any cell in the human body.
These are called induced pluripotent stem — or iPS — cells. Scéil, a division of the listed biotech firm Cellectis, started offering the world’s first cell backup service in the UAE this month. Here the chief executive of Sceil, André Choulika, a native of Lebanon, talks about the benefits of iPS technology and why the company chose the UAE as the third place to introduce the service.
First, can you explain more about the technology?
It’s a very popular technology currently in the biomedical field in general. It’s totally a new start in the field of regenerative medicine. There was a paradigm shift when Shinya Yamanaka discovered these [iPS] cells. Before, regenerative medicine was based on the use of embryonic stem cells. Most of the time embryonic stem cells have a series of different issues therefore progress in this medicine was slow: because of ethical reasons; because of stem cells are not your cells so you have [the possibility of] graft rejection; and because you do not know the potential of these embryonic stem cells and so on. You have another option to find stem cells for certain types of tissues in your body: there are blood stem cells, muscle stem cells [but] these don’t have full potential to become any kind of tissues.
So your technology allows your practitioners to take a piece of skin and make any kind of other tissue out of it?
Yes. You can reconstitute 100 per cent all the tissues of the body with an iPS cell. There are a series of clinical trials that are currently happening that will probably lead in the future to various therapies. These will be available commercially in the mid-term — at the earliest in five years probably. And in 20, 30, 40 years there will be a series of different therapies.
Can you give an example?
As people age, they lose their sight because their retina degrades. In Japan, [scientists are] taking iPS cells, reconstituting the retina and replanting it so [patients] can see again. [Age-related illnesses such as] Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are not pleasant. But you can reconstitute neurons and there are procedures [being developed by] some pharmaceutical companies for neurons. Diabetes is also something that [more people are developing] every year. We have an agreement with Novo Nordisk to recreate pancreatic cells. If this ever comes to the commercial stage, then diabetic people won’t have to have insulin injections [after their cells are rebooted].
Is it a complicated procedure?
It’s like removing a mole. You go to a dermatologist or hospital and it’s a five-second procedure to take a 3mm diameter piece of skin that will be transformed into iPS cells then stored in three different places: Switzerland, Dubai and Singapore.
Getting your cells backed up costs US$60,000. That’s pretty steep.
We understand this price might not be affordable for anyone. However, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime procedure; it’s an investment for the rest of your life. For now we are targeting a certain population that can afford this but we believe that with the expansion of regenerative medicine and therapies in general people will be interested to do this immediately to preserve their best assets today. We are the first worldwide to offer this. When you pay $60,000 it’s not like cord blood storing; you have to reboot the cells and this is a complicated procedure.
If I were to do this, should it do it sooner rather than later?
Yes. It matters because the more you wait the more mutations there will be in your DNA. With more mutations, there are more wrinkles, less good hearing, less muscle fitness and so on. Your DNA today is the best asset you can have at the second we are talking. In one hour it will be less good, in 10 years even less good. So it’s important to do it as soon as possible. But you can do it on a kid who’s five years old, or a newborn, or a person who is over 100. If you take the skin cells from a 100-year-old and reboot them through iPS everything will come back to the stage of stem cells similar to embryonic stem cell — except the DNA will be 100 years old. So the earlier the better.
Why did you choose Dubai as the third place to offer the service?
It has a very good position between the East — South East Asia — and Europe. It’s also a spot that’s very much business-prone and there are potential clients here. And I think there is a strong will from the Dubai authorities to [promote] biotechnology.
So to date, how many people have availed themselves of this service?
We don’t give this number. We are a listed company. It’s privileged information.
Have you regenerated your own cells?
Of course. Long ago.