Developments to Watch
A BIOTECH TOOL FOR REPAIRING BLOOD CELLS?
The most important products to emerge from biotechnology so far have been so-called growth factors that spark growth of red and white blood cells. Products such as EPO, which helps an anemic body make red blood cells, and colony stimulating factor, which assists the body in restoring white blood cells, have boosted combined sales for Amgen Inc. and Immunex Corp. to $2 billion worldwide. Platelets--proteins that help blood form clots after an injury--are the third vital blood component. During high-dose chemotherapy or radiation, platelet counts drop so low that patients are in grave risk of dying from hemorrhage. For decades, scientists have been trying to isolate the substance that sparks platelet production.
In the June 16 Nature, Genentech Inc. in South San Francisco and ZymoGenetics Inc. in Seattle say they think they've found this long-missing factor. If so, it could open the door to the next billion-dollar bio-blockbuster. Other companies are in the race, but Genentech and ZymoGenetics have cloned and purified proteins dubbed "thrombopoietins," which in animals spur dramatic platelet growth. With all three drugs at a doctor's disposal, cancer patients could receive higher doses of drugs and radiation and stand a better chance of being cured.EDITED BY OTIS PORT