Biotech firms advance in developing replacement organs
Replacement parts for diseased organs, anti-inflammatory compounds and growth of corneal tissue are among developments under way in Hawaii's growing biotech industry.
"Biotechnology and life science is a growing reality in Hawaii," said Michael T. Fitzgerald, president and chief executive officer of Enterprise Honolulu.
Company executives described their work to several hundred doctors, scientists and engineers at the recently held second Hawaii BioScience Conference, sponsored by the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.
Fitzgerald said, eight or nine technology sectors have emerged here in the past 15 to 20 years because of Department of Defense money.
Fitzgerald expressed concern, however, about "fear factors" that create suspicion and anxiety and result in curtailing biotechnology funding.
"We're already up against that in Hawaii," he said, referring to opposition to genetically engineered food. Legislation also has prohibited import of some enzymes "under the guise of alien species," he said.
Among the local presenters were Bradley Perkins, senior vice president of Tissue Genesis Inc.; David Watumull, president, Cardax Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; and Hank Wuh, founder and chief executive officer of Cellular Bioengineering.
Tissue Genesis specializes in developing therapeutic cells to repair damaged tissues and heal diseases and is working on vascular grafts and stents, Perkins said.
"We're trying to move from research to development to commercialization," he said. "We're slowly moving some things into commercialization."
Watumull said Cardax Pharmaceutical is targeting diseases where inflammation plays a pivotal role.
"We now know inflammation has a key role in cardiovascular diseases," he said, explaining the drug Cardax localizes in the cardiac tissue and stops damage.
The firm has collaborated with Cleveland Clinic and Ohio State University on studies and hopes to be in human clinical trials next year, he said.
Wuh, an orthopedic surgeon, said Cellular Bioengineering is collaborating with institutions on the mainland and in Hong Kong to develop replacement parts for diseased organs.
For instance, corneal transplants are the most common transplant procedure and 10 million people worldwide have cornea-associated problems, he said.
Wuh believes the company can grow corneal tissue and "build a business where we can supply corneas to the world."
Some of the nation's leading doctors, researchers and policy-makers attended the conference, chaired by Dr. Edwin Cadman, professor of medicine and former dean of the John A. Burns Medical School.
Speakers from the mainland, Hawaii and other countries reported advances in areas such as neurodegenerative diseases, reproductive biology, genomics, emerging infectious diseases and proteomics (study of proteins).
Dr. Bruce Alberts, National Academy of Sciences president emeritus and University of California-San Francisco professor of biochemistry and biophysics, discussed the challenges of preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers.
The United States attracted some of the world's best scientists after World War II but other countries are developing outstanding research capabilities, he said, "and many of our best people will be going home. We need to do something about that."
Young scientists should be given resources, encouraged to take risks and rewarded for innovations, Alberts said.