French biotech entrepreneur Andre Choulika is working on an unusual and pricey project: A stem cell bank for adults. Choulika's stem cell bank, Sceil, is a new Singapore-based operation that claims to transform human skin cells into stem cells and then to store them for future medical procedures. For $60,000, clients can have a sample of their underarm skin punched at a local dermatologist, and sent to Singapore, where the cells are converted into stem cells over the course of a few months. The $60,000 only covers the first two years of storage.
Yes, it's expensive, but It's also one of the very first attempts to bank adult stem cells for future medical procedures.
Sceil, which operates in Singapore thanks to strict regulatory issues surrounding stem cell banking in the United States and the European Union, is based around the regenerative medicine theories of Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka. In a telephone conversation with Fast Company, Choulika expressed interest in future innovations—some decades away—that might come from Yamanaka's work. Yamanaka won his Nobel Prize, shared with researcher John Gurdon, for turning mature human cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells, though somewhat more difficult to work with than embryonic stem cells, avoid much of the ethical and legal issues that surround them.
The process of converting underarm cells into stem cells takes several months, Choulika told me. "Skin cell samples are cultured to a volume of several billion, and these primary cells are saved as backups. Then some of these cells are cultured and converted into induced pluripotent stem cells over a period of three to four months. The conversion process lasts longer for different people. In some people it's more difficult, and in others it's easier." For good measure, Choulika emphasized that his company stores the stem cells in liquid nitrogen on three different continents.
Here is an infographic Sceil provides to potential clients to explain his business model:
Three different continents? Right there is the rub with Sceil. The company's target audience are ultra-affluent folks with lots of spending money—although Choulika didn't say as much, the 12-14 million people worldwide he cited as a target market jibes nicely with that—who are worried about their future health. They could be a target market for some world-changing medical experiments in foreign countries.
Regenerative medicine researchers worldwide have promised revolutionary results. Researchers at Wake Forest University are applying regenerative medicine techniques to 3-D print artificial organs on demand. Scientists at San Francisco State University are working on regenerating adult teeth. Then there are the more experimental efforts attempting to undo neurological damage and human aging with regenerative medicine. Once the FDA and other regulatory agencies approve hospital-ready versions of these technologies decades from now, Fast Company readers under 50 may have a shot at organ donations-on-demand in their lifetimes.
For Choulika, the stem cell bank is an experimental effort. Since moving to France from Lebanon, he founded Cellectis, a genome engineering firm closely tied to the Pasteur Institute. Cellectis' bread and butter is the much more lucrative field of conventional gene editing and intellectual property licensing for everything from big pharma to companies that make genetically modified foods. Stem cell banking is still nascent, and Sceil will be one of the very first banks targeting adult stem cell donations.
Sceil's success comes down to those millions of people with $60,000 extra to spend. If the world has enough mega-rich people to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a future shot at growing a new pancreas or reversing aging by a decade, Sceil has pretty decent odds.