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The idea of treating disease and injury with a routine injection of raw human cells was once just a pipe dream. For neurobiologist Jennifer Massengill '88 and her pioneering biotech colleagues at ViaCell Inc., it's moving closer and closer to reality. "There's a real bottleneck in cellular medicine, and we've developed the technology to break the bottleneck," said Massengill, a research scientist at the Massachusetts-based biotech firm. "We're on what some people would call the cutting edge in cell amplification."
Massengill earned a Ph.D. in neurobiology at the University of California at Irvine and went on to become one of four original path-breakers at Breeders, Inc., when it was born in a Worcester biotech incubator suite in 1997. She is now one of 100 employees at ViaCell, the merged company that conducts both cellular research and retail banking of cord blood. The merged company, which formed in 2000 and quickly obtained $60 million in venture capital, expects to conduct clinical tests of its cell expansion technology in humans this year.
The race is on.
"We're not alone," Massengill said, "but there aren't many companies. It's in the single digits." Forbes magazine put the number at just two when it cited ViaCell as one of the leaders in the drive to produce pure and massive quantities of rare undifferentiated human cells.
Scientists believe the pristine material could be a key to the future of medicine because the raw cells could be programmed for specific jobs or, alternatively, would simply know what to do all on their own, given the right environment. "If you can get enough of these cells and enough of them to be pure enough," Massengill said, "you ought to be able to get them to go where you want them to go."
Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries, strokes and other serious conditions would bow before such powerful medicine, she predicts.
The source of the cells also can be a hurdle. ViaCell obtains its material by the comparatively controversy-free method of conserving blood from otherwise discarded umbilical cords. Some leukemia patients already receive injections of the cord blood in the hope that its stem cells will help beat the disease. Massengill and her colleagues are trying to supercharge that process by mixing plain cord blood with the purified material made by ViaCell. "We are going to be able to treat many, many diseases," she said, looking into the future. "I have faith in the medical community. The technology is coming."
ViaCell also is a retail bank for cord blood. For a fee, parents can conserve the blood cells of their child's own umbilical cord as a sort of futuristic insurance policy that could be invaluable if medicine can master its manipulation.
Though excited by the upcoming clinical trials and often still working in a white coat in the lab, Massengill just as often finds herself in the field, pitching for ViaCell's patented process to expand the treasured stem cells of human biology.
She credits her Colby education with helping her fill a particular niche at ViaCell, giving her the opportunity to work both in and outside the lab with scientists and nonscientists and, she hopes, to bridge the gap between them. "I can't emphasize enough how important a liberal arts education has been to me," Massengill said.
-M.F. Chip Gavin '90
Diversity Call Renewed: Students, President Bro Adams, faculty and others join in effort to appreciate and accentuate differences.
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A Simple Feast: Wylie Dufresne '92 is one of the hottest chefs in New York City.
President's Page: President Bro Adams on the court and affirmative action.
Alumni Reunion 2001
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