In a deal being described as unusual by biotechnology industry insiders, Pfizer officials announced this week that the pharmaceutical company will fund the adult stem cell research of a small La Jolla-based company.

Under the terms of the deal, Pfizer, a giant drug company, will invest $3 million in EyeCyte Inc., a company working to develop stem cell treatments that may be able to stave off retina damage caused by diabetes. Such retina damage is a leading cause of blindness, according to researchers.

EyeCyte’s work is based on the research of Scripps Research Institute ophthalmologist Martin Friedlander. Friedlander has pin-pointed specific stem cells that may be able to target and repair damaged blood vessels in the eye. Pfizer officials said in a written statement that they are investing in EyeCyte in exchange for the option to buy the fledgling company if the research continues to look promising — and profitable.

The start-up seems to have caught a lucky break in an industry where funding is hard to come by.

Big drug companies like Pfizer have traditionally been skittish about investing in stem cell treatments because of the risk associated with the long-term and controversial research. But in April, amid falling stock value and key advances in stem cell research, Pfizer started a new regenerative medicine branch devoted to therapies involving stem cells.

Developing a procedure to purify stem cells for human trials was complicated and difficult for EyeCyte researchers at Scripps because academic settings and government grants generally support basic research, not the hands-on development required for such targeted research.

Pfizer’s funding will basically pay to commercialize EyeCyte’s therapy if it proves successful.

On the other hand, Pfizer, whose spokesman said the company is looking to combine “the entrepreneurial spirit of the start-up, but with the muscle and clout and access to resources of a pharmaceutical company,” seems to have little to lose in trying new investment ventures. Its stock has been weakening, according to industry reports, and its main drug, Lipitor, will face patent expiration in 2011.

Researchers hope that in the future, patients with early signs of blood-vessel damage in the eye might go to the doctor in the morning and leave a blood sample. Adult stem cells would be isolated in the lab over the next few hours and the patient would come back in the afternoon and get an injection of his own purified stem cells into the eye. That single injection could stave off further blood-vessel damage for years, preserving eyesight that would otherwise be lost.

Friedlander, the ophthalmologist, said he has cured mice “10 times over” in his lab in work funded by the National Eye Institute. The big question, he said, is whether the treatment will help people.

EyeCyte researchers and Pfizer investors hope to have a stem-cell treatment ready for human trials within three years, according to the release.


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