In Canada's Stem Cell Factory, AI Would Help Patrol the Line

(Bloomberg) -- A half-century ago, Canadian scientists discovered transplantable stem cells, which can grow into any kind of human tissue. Now, a government-backed research facility in Toronto wants to create a partially automated factory that would mass-produce these human building blocks into disease-fighting cells -- a process that is currently slow and labor-intensive.

Toronto’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine aims to lead the effort, which is expected to take several years because large-scale commercialization will require new technologies and automation. CCRM and General Electric Co.’s health division have set up a lab in Toronto to develop technology and processes that could potentially be used in the factory -- although GE hasn’t yet committed to help build it.

“This is Canada’s chance to own stem cell manufacturing,” says CCRM President Michael May, adding that the tech developed in the lab could be exported globally. “We’re putting together all the processes and equipment for a blueprint for cell manufacturing in the future.”

May’s dream factory won’t just manufacture stem cells; it will engineer many types of cells that are required to fight various diseases. Cell therapies are starting to show real promise. In August, for example, Novartis AG won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a blood cancer cell therapy, called CAR-T, which involves re-engineering a patient’s own cells. The discovery has resulted in an 83 percent remission rate among clinical patients who had mostly run out of options and heralded a new era of cures, despite the $475,000 price tag on the treatment.

Canada isn’t alone in its ambitions. Drug companies have already built their own stem cell factories, and countries like Japan are also keen to do so. But Canada, already a leader in artificial intelligence, is well positioned to do the same in cell therapies, which can do things like help the immune system attack cancers, or get defective cells to replace missing or damaged proteins. Toronto, the nation’s most populous city, hosts one of the highest concentrations of hospitals and biotech researchers in the world. Canada’s stem cell sector has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital, including a $225 million funding round for cell-therapy startup BlueRock Therapeutics from German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG and Silicon Valley-based Versant Ventures Management LLC. 

With drug companies working on scores of therapies, demand for stem cells is soaring. Billions of cells are needed for clinical trials alone. But manufacturing stem cells is a laborious process, says Aaron Dulgar-Tulloch, a director at GE Healthcare, who’s currently working at the CCRM-GE lab. A skilled technician must carefully put the cells in a small bowl and feed them, transfer them to a special environment with ideal temperature and oxygen levels. As they grow, the cells must be checked constantly because they are sensitive to contamination and their growth can be stunted if they’re not treated in a precise manner under perfect conditions.

The process takes weeks, and one person might generate enough material for a single person’s therapy. But as more therapies come online and the pool of patients expands to tens of thousands there’s simply not enough talent or labs in the world to produce enough material, Dulgar-Tulloch says.

The Canadian cell factory will be partly automated, speeding up the process and making it possible to grow many more cells at once. The wealth of data generated from current cell facilities will be used to train artificial intelligence algorithms, which in turn will ensure that the billions of cells are being cultivated under ideal conditions. The computers will learn over time and help optimize the production of cell-based therapies.

The GE and CCRM lab is located in the Toronto MaRS Discovery district, a 1.5 million square foot building that houses industry leaders, including the Google-backed Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Johnson & Johnson’s innovation hub. Acorn Biolabs Inc., a startup that has developed the first take-home kit to cryopreserve human cells, recently moved its headquarters to MaRS from Waterloo-Kitchener to be close to the AI and stem cell hub.

The Trudeau government offers tax breaks to research-intensive industries, fast-track visas to high-skilled workers and increased funding for innovation across the board. CCRM and GE have benefited from some of these policies and have recruited several foreign high-skilled workers from China, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. to their Toronto lab.

GE’s $18 billion health unit does everything from making medical imaging equipment to drug discovery, and represents a big push by the company into healthcare technology. GE is pouring money into advancing cell-based therapies that can ultimately be transferred to commercial factories for mass production, including the one CCRM envisions for the future.

“This is really an opportunity for Canada to position itself and generate that ecosystem while the field is still maturing,” Dulgar-Tulloch says. “There is no country in the world that can say ‘we have already locked this down and we’re the region of choice for cell therapy and regenerative medicine’ because the field is just too new and it’s still developing.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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