Stem cell research comes with a generous handful of misconceptions. The first, of course, is that the science deals entirely with embryonic cells. The second, it would seem, is that it's difficult. Within the next three weeks, IntelliCell, a publicly traded stem cell research company, will open a lab facility in Englewood. But that's where what you'd expect ends and what will surprise you about science begins.
First, the details are simple. At the new branch's helm is one man -- Bill Hess, a former Boston Scientific medical sales employee who will soon upgrade his title to owner and operator of one of the company's four pending labs. When all four open, IntelliCell's numbers will increase to ten branches opened since it went public on June 30.
"I personally think that stem cell therapy will be in huge in a few years," says Hess, who discovered the company through an ad on LinkedIn. At the current rate, US stem cell research is roughly four years behind similar programs in Europe and Asia because it was legally restricted until 2009. "It's just me until it grows, and then I'll consider hiring others. It's obviously very new, and it's a process and a therapy that I really believe in."
Hess, who followed a pattern similar to the beginnings of most of IntelliCell's branch owners, discovered the company, paid a licensing fee to the company and visited its New York City headquarters for training on the process. As the branch's sole employee, Hess will receive further training from visiting IntelliCell officials once the equipment for his twelve-by-twelve lab space arrives in Colorado.
To be clear, IntelliCell's stem cell work includes no embryonic cells, only the patient's own tissue. Hess's daily work, which will take place in half-hour bursts as doctors drop off 60cc samples, deals mostly with fat. Although IntelliCell's process, currently governed by a provisional patent, can be applied to both medical and cosmetic uses (the company's publicity materials list causes including arthritis, autism and acne scars), Hess and his company superiors stress that it can be completed in a few simple steps.
The first one begins with a courier delivering patient fat samples from doctors whose patients pay a $2,500 fee for IntelliCell's services each round. Insurance doesn't cover the cost, and though the process is gaining popularity, none of its applications have yet been clinically proven in the US, says Anna Rhodes, IntelliCell's executive vice president of operations.
Once the fat is harvested and delivered, employees use a process called ultrasonic cavitation, which induces sound waves to break up the fat and separate it first into unusable cells and debris, and then into stromal vascular fraction, the portion of cells that generate growth and include stem cells.
"Your fat is really just a storage container for things your body calls on when their levels get depleted," national sales manager Jonathan Schwartz says. "It's like a soup, and the soup has all these ingredients in it -- all these different type of cells that contain growth factors. Among those cells are stem cells, but it's the combination of all these cells that makes it efficacious."
After that step, samples are put through a centrifuge, which enables the sample to separate the debris and residue from the rest before a sample is taken using a flow cytometer (a tiny laser) to guarantee that the cells are viable. This is the most important step.
"It gives you a read-out of the amount of active cells in the finished product, their viability, the amount of dead cells and the amount of debris," Schwartz says. "This is key because it verifies that when the doctor reintroduces the stromal vascular fraction back into the patient, it's viable and alive."
At this point, the courier makes an exit.
In between phone conversations with the company's New York headquarters, a smooth voice interrupts speaking breaks to announce further details of the company's break-though process, one that must be followed to the letter. The IntelliCell process itself was created by head think tank Dr. Steven Victor, the company's chairman and CEO, who developed the tissue processing system across a period of four years.
The company's officials, Rhodes included, opt not to say what the process' most common application is, and in fact, they stay out of the medical side of the company in general. IntelliCell processes the tissue, to be sure, but what happens to the cells when the thirty minutes are up is no longer the company's business -- or its prerogative.
While he waits for additional training and equipment during the next three weeks, Hess's attention is focused on publicizing IntelliCell's services in the local medical community. Until he guarantees a continuous customer base, Hess will remain the branch's only employee.
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"There's not a tremendous amount of paperwork involved," Hess says. "I asked the Department of Public Health and Environment for guidance, and they pretty much cleared me."
In the meantime, Hess's sole difficulty has stemmed from the same misconceptions that come to mind when most people think of stem cell research in the general sense. "When I first was looking for space and mentioned I was starting a lab for stem cells, they all got upset," Hess says. "Once I explained it, it was no big deal, but it took a while to get the details cleared up."
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