May 22, 2014, Updated May 26, 2014

A new Israeli company is using the natural process of cell death to help people undergoing transplants of all kinds live longer. This counterintuitive approach is the vision of Cellect – and could radically change the way people with leukemia manage their disease.

Stem cells hold the promise to eradicate cancer and other devastating diseases. But one of the biggest bottlenecks for clinicians and researchers is getting enough stem cells in a blood sample to use in transplantation.

If too many of the donor’s regular body cells are left in the sample, a patient undergoing a bone-marrow transplant will probably suffer an immune reaction, which can be deadly. In fact, about half of all bone-marrow transplants lead to graft vs. host disease, requiring a lifetime of immunosuppressant drugs.

A new approach to harvesting stem cells is required, says Dr. Shai Yarkoni, a medical doctor, biomed expert and co-founder and CEO of Cellect.

“Stem cells are defined not by how they look but what they can do. So my partner, Dr. Nadir Askenasy — also a physician, a chemist and a genius — came up with an intuitive approach for how we should select them from a sample for transplantation,” says Yarkoni in an interview with ISRAEL21c.

Off-the-shelf, cheaper, faster

Several companies, such Miltenyi Biotec in Germany, make tools to cull stem cells from donor blood. But the process is expensive, about $50,000 per transplant, and requires three days of work by skilled personnel. Worse, the current technology still leaves a significant amount of body cells behind — or alternatively, too few stem cells.

“Thousands of companies and millions of researchers know what they can do with stem cells, but the raw material is the critical issue,” Yarkoni says. “How do you get enough stem cells to start the treatment?”

Cellect’s stem-cell selection kit, a unique medical device originally conceived by Askenasy about a decade ago, could accomplish the task more effectively, and for a fraction of the cost.

The only tool that’s needed is a biological hood, and these can be found even in developing countries. The process takes less than 10 hours and it’s simple to do, based on the natural process of cell death (apoptosis).

Solution for all autoimmune diseases?

All cells in our body are programmed to die and turn into “compost” at certain points in their lifecycle, explains Yarkoni. And stem cells migrate to areas with extensive apoptosis because their job is to rebuild tissue.

Significantly, the stem cells withstand the biological process that would trigger the death of other cells lingering in the area.

CEO Dr. Shai Yarkoni.
CEO Dr. Shai Yarkoni.

By simulating apoptosis in a tube lined with a cell death-causing protein, the Cellect kit effectively kills the immune response-inducing cells while leaving the very desirable stem cells intact for the transplant. They call this process “aposorting.”

The company has published about 15 scientific reports on its findings involving animal studies, says Yarkoni.

About 80 percent of the control group in his lab experiments developed graft vs. host disease. Using stem cells collected with Cellect technology, the numbers went down to about zero. Similar results were seen in vitro on human cells.

Cellect will be recruiting patients for Phase I clinical trials in about one year, pending approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Initial product ready in four years

Yarkoni expects to have Cellect’s first product on the market within four years.

He predicts that within the next decade, Cellect’s kit will make a bone-marrow transplant about as risky as getting your appendix removed. This is major news for anyone with immune-related diseases and disorders from lupus to Crohn’s, leukemia and diabetes.

“We [reduce] the risk, and so we believe that bone-marrow transplantation can be a huge solution for all autoimmune diseases.” For now, the company is focusing on leukemia.

Cellect was founded in 2011 and is based in Kfar Saba, Israel, where it employs a team of six people. The founder physicians have been best friends since childhood.

The company has just raised $5 million and was previously funded with a $1 million seed fund contributed by the founders. Strategic partners are currently sought to bring the technology forward.

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Jason Harris

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