Dr. Pedro Huertas, a physician-turned biotechnology manager, is at the forefront of one of the most talked-about – and controversial – frontiers of medicine.
Earlier this year, he was appointed chief development officer for Alameda, California-based Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), a leader in the field of embryonic stem cell therapy.
Embryonic stem cell technology holds the promise of helping millions of people suffering from debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and heart disease. And Dr. Huertas, a 52-year-old Chilean native, will oversee ACT's research and the process of moving the technology from the laboratory bench, and its studies on chimeric mice, to the bedside.
"Our intent is to develop therapies and cures for some of the worst diseases that affect humans," he says.
Although federal restrictions have limited funding for research in the field, biotechnology companies, backed by private money – and in California, state funds – are racing to move the technology from laboratories into clinics.
ACT focuses on finding ways to use embryonic stem cells to help people affected by the eye disease macular degeneration, and to heal burns and other injuries.
ACT is recognized for having one of he best pedigrees in what is admittedly a new field.
"Advanced Cell Technology is a pioneer and continues to push the frontiers of cellular therapy both in terms of embryonic stem cell development and basic science, as well as looking into different clinical applications," says Dr. Garrett Vygantas, a senior associate with the Venture Group at San Francisco's Burrill & Company.
While his company has no investment relationship with ACT, it has advised the firm and ACT officials spoke at Burrill's premiere conference on the subject, The Stem Cell Meeting, in March.
"They're well known enough that they're not going to go away anytime soon," he says of the company, which trades over the counter as ACTC. "The question is, will they have sufficient capital to break even, or to ramp up once they do."
RIGHT PERSON, RIGHT TIME
ACT had been searching for the right person for the position of chief development officer for the best part of a year, says William M. Caldwell, IV, the company's chairman and CEO.
"It was a very rigorous profile we were looking for."
The company needed a scientist who was well versed in the clinical trial process and the many regulatory steps required to have a therapy approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
"We needed somebody who could spearhead that," Mr. Caldwell recalls.
Dr. Huertas, he adds, "is one of those unique individuals that is clearly qualified to run a clinical trial. He has extensive experience interacting with the FDA.
"We are looking to Dr. Huertas to take this company to a new level."
He adds that what won ACT executives over was, in part, Dr. Huertas's enthusiasm for embryonic stem cell technology, which he is "absolutely" convinced will translate into therapies or even cures for an array of diseases affecting millions of people.
Embryonic stem cells hold the potential of providing replacement parts for cells ravaged by disease or injury because they can be coaxed to develop into any kind of tissue found in the human body – from liver cells to brain cells to skin.
While the promise of embryonic stem cells has caused considerable controversy and been "hyped to a great extent," Dr. Huertas says he believes there's good reason to think it could help a great many people.
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