Israeli company Pluristem develops treatment for radiation


This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

Haifa, Israel – “We’re the placenta guys,” Zami Aberman, the CEO of Pluristem says with a smile. “Ten years ago when we started with the idea of using the placenta as raw material for cell therapy we were considered nuts.”

Today, he told The Media Line, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the medical research arm of the US government recently made a decision to declare the next ten years the “placenta discovery age.” Pluristem is running a study with the NIH on whether its placental cell therapy can be an effective remedy for acute radiation syndrome.

The study comes as Iran seems set to sign a deal severely limiting its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Israeli officials are skeptical about Iran’s intentions and believe that Iran intends to become a nuclear power. Aberman says the drug can also be used in the event of a radiation disaster such as the one that occurred in Japan four years ago or a nuclear attack that could affect hundreds of thousands of people with Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS).

The drug being developed is called PLX-R18. PLX stands for placenta expanded and 18 for the word chai, or life, in Hebrew. The process that Aberman explains seems like something out of a science-fiction movie.

“We collect cells from placentas after a C-section because the mother has to sign a consent letter,” he said. ‘Four hours after birth we start manufacturing. We cut the placenta into pieces, put enzymes on, and collect the cells released from the enzymatic processing.”

Eight weeks later, the product is ready and between 50 million and 100 million cells are packed into a vial, which are then cryogenically frozen until they need to be used. From one placenta, they can produce 30,000 vials, each enough for one dose.

What is unique about the treatment is that because it is made from stem cells it does not have to be matched to the recipient’s blood or tissue type. Once injected, the PLX-R-18 communicate with the patient’s body and allow it to begin to heal itself from the hematological, gastrointestinal and neurovascular damage. It can be administered up to 72 hours after radiation exposure, a benefit as medial services are not always immediately available.

Pluristem is traded on both the Israeli stock exchange and on Nasdaq in the US. The company has a $200 million market capitalization, and gets about $4 million annually from the Israeli government, with the rest coming from investors.

“I do think cell therapy is the way of the future,” Dr. Edwin Horwitz, Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio told The Media Line. “Nature has evolved to do things over the course of billions of years that we don’t really understand. For example, look at T-cells fighting viruses. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that we began to understand how that happened, and in the 1990’s we began engineering T-cells to kill viruses on demand.”

Horwitz is also an investor in Pluristem and the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board.

“Not everything is completely understood – you throw yourselves at a product and sometimes you hit a home run,” he said. “Pluristem does in-house research and they collaborate with universities. I think they are likely to be a tremendously successful company in their field.”

Pluristem does all of its manufacturing at its plant in Haifa, not far from the Mediterranean Sea. Workers wear full body suits, and signs warn against contamination. The company also manufactures special devices to thaw the vials of PLX-R18 cells, which can last up to four years frozen.

The company has already done trials using mice, and is preparing for one using monkeys. Only four other companies around the world are at a similar stage in cell therapy development, says Aberman, but hundreds are in earlier stages. Pluristem says it hopes to bring its products to market in the next few years.

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