“No, Really, Save That Placenta”
by Paul Tullis
Bloomberg Businessweek, February 15, 2018
If you had a child in the last 15-20 years, you were probably offered the opportunity to collect some of the blood from the umbilical cord for cryostorage in the hope that the stem cells they contained could be used to treat health conditions your child might develop over his or her life course. When my oldest daughter was born, they told me that therapies developed from cord blood were then treating some rare forms of leukemia, but that by the time she was a teenager many more treatments would be available to help with a range of diseases and conditions. Well, she will be 14 in March and I’m still waiting–for most, the promise of cordblood storage has yet to be realized.
Peter Diamandis and Bob Hariri are here to change that. The founders of the XPRIZE and Celgene and co-founders with Craig Venter of Human Longevity Inc. (which I wrote about for Town & Country, the world’s greatest science magazine, and never got around to pitching the skeptical angle that you ran on the company) are announcing on Feb 15 the formal launch, with $100M of funding from John Sculley, United Biotech, Sorrento, et al, to productize a scientific breakthrough of utilizing stem cells from the placenta—which are way more abundant, and more versatile, than those in cord blood—in three ways: cell therapy (treatment of life-threatening immune diseases such as MS and Crohn’s), functional regeneration (Celularity products in this area are already sold by Celgene, from which the company is being spun off, so it will have immediate revenue), and biosourcing (they own the world’s only repository of donated placentas). The moonshot for the company will be another rich-white-guy–longevity play, as it builds on Hariri’s discovery years ago of the link between age and the number of stem cells in organs and tissues. Celularity hopes to extend the healthy lifespan 20-30 years by augmenting immunity (placentas bolster expectant mothers’ immunity, and put their immune-related diseases into remission) so the body can prevent disease or fight cancer before it’s detectable.
One angle that makes this interesting, I think, and which I doubt other outlets will be exploring in coverage of the launch, is Celularity’s model of collecting placental stem cells. A few extra-crunchy moms like to save their placentas and bury them or do other weird shit with them, but mainly they’re discarded. Celularity has agreements with medical facilities nationwide to obtain discarded placentas, but the families that donate don’t get a share of any revenue that their donation contributes to. It’s not like organ donation, where a kidney goes into one patient and that’s the end of it, but more like a Henrietta Lacks or 23andMe scenario, where profitable therapies are developed and the donor doesn’t get a cut. That doesn’t have to be the way; one company now in formation to develop treatments from the microbiome plans to give donors 30% of any revenue their donations contributes to.