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Geron CEO Okarma Leaves as Company Turns to Dealmaking

Geron Corp., the company conducting the first U.S.-authorized trial of human embryonic stem cells, said Chief Executive Officer Thomas B. Okarma has stepped aside as the company focuses on making deals with drugmakers.

Okarma will remain with Geron as a consultant while Chief Financial officer David L. Greenwood takes over as interim CEO, president and a member of the board of directors, the Menlo Park, California-based company said in a statement.

Geron began in October the first of three stages of testing usually required by regulators for its embryonic stem-cell therapy in spinal-cord injury patients. The company also has three clinical trials under way testing therapies to treat cancer. The change in leadership shows the company wants to focus on creating partnerships that can advance its products, said Ren Benjamin, an analyst with Rodman & Renshaw in New York.

“Clearly there was a difference of opinion as to how the company should move forward,” between Okarma and the board, Benjamin said in a telephone interview today. “The board wants to take a more strategic focus on partnerships with a keen eye on the cash spend and position.”

Geron rose 5 cents, or 1 percent, to $5.05 at 4 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market composite trading. The shares have dropped 6.3 percent in the past 12 months.

Greenwood Made Deals

Geron doesn’t have plans to start a search for a permanent CEO, board member and founding investor Alexander Barkas said today during a conference call with analysts. He said Greenwood worked on Wall Street before coming to Geron in 1995 and will be able to use his “30 years of dealmaking experience” to create partnerships for the company.

Two to three years ago, pharmaceutical companies expressed “curiosity” about Geron’s embryonic stem cell program, Greenwood said on the call.

“That curiosity has continued to grow and evolve and today it’s interest,” Greenwood said. “We have conversations with different companies and we will progress those conversations to talking about potential alliances.”

Geron funded the University of Wisconsin research that first isolated stem cells from human embryos in 1998. On July 30, the company said it had won clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test a therapy derived from those cells.

The stem-cell study now under way will test the safety of the therapy in patients paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. So far, one patient has been treated and the company will treat others as eligible patients become available after suffering injuries.

Hoyoung Huh, a director of Geron, was named executive chairman, while Barkas moved from chairman to lead independent director, the company said.

“The take-home message is we are open for partnering,” Huh said during today’s call.

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