Steven L. Stice, Ph.D.
The University of Georgia
An internationally recognized expert in stem cell biology, Steve Stice has been leading breakthroughs in cell therapy since the 1980s, with an impressive list of key “firsts” to his name. Among them: He produced the first cloned rabbit and the first cloned transgenic calves, and he launched the first company to commercialize a therapy based on federally approved stem cell lines.
Stice’s latest research focuses on an exciting new avenue for drug discovery, drug delivery, regenerative medicine and more: the little-understood extracellular vesicle, commonly referred to as an exosome.
Our cells constantly release small “packets” or “bubbles,” called extracellular vesicles (EV). Up until recently, EVs were thought to mainly contain waste. But in 2007, a groundbreaking study from Sweden showed they also carry genetic material from cell to cell.
It’s now widely accepted that EVs are important messengers. They transport proteins as well as genetic material, and they can be modified to carry and deliver drug payloads. One reason that’s so exciting is they have an innate ability to bypass formidable barriers, like the blood-brain barrier. They can go where larger drug molecules cannot. Exosomes are just one kind of EV, but at this point, they’re the most widely studied.
Stice and his team have been at the forefront of EV research. One of their most successful developments is a treatment for stroke, dubbed AB126. Created in collaboration with researchers from Augusta University, AB126 uses exosomes generated from neural stem cells. (Neural stem cells are the undifferentiated, self-renewing “template cells” that can become neurons, a.k.a brain cells.) Think of these neural exosomes as functioning like couriers for brain cells. Because they’re so small and designed to penetrate cells, neural exosomes can easily deliver their payload of regenerative genetic material directly to damaged brain tissue.
The treatment has shown great promise in pre-clinical studies for strokes. MRI scans in animal models revealed that recipients of the Stice-developed AB126 showed:
- 35 percent less injury area
- 50 percent less loss of brain tissue
The findings suggest this treatment could improve outcomes for stroke patients by strengthening the brain’s healing processes and reducing brain tissue damage.
For such a treatment to be commercially viable, these therapeutic exosomes need to be manufactured beyond the hands-on, highly monitored environment of the lab. Moreover, exosome manufacturing must be consistent, reliable and high-volume. Stice’s company, ArunA Biomedical, is advancing proprietary cell manufacturing methods that could make this possible. Launched in 2006, ArunA is entering a new era of market potential. In 2018, the company raised $5.3 million from investors to advance development and manufacturing of its neural exosomes.
Stice and his collaborators are pursuing similar EV-based therapeutic approaches for a host of other conditions, including traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, ALS and Alzheimer’s. His lab has also demonstrated how EVs can be used to boost the immune system.
Stice’s extensive history of work on stem cell technology has launched five biotech start-ups and led to 31 patents (as of 2019). The National Academy of Inventors (NAI) named Stice an NAI Fellow, the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors. He also serves as director of the Regenerative Bioscience Center at the University of Georgia.
- Cell-based therapies for degenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases and spinal cord and head trauma
- Stem cells for neural research and drug discovery
- Neural exosome-based therapies and drug delivery
- Cell-based diagnostic tools for chemical and compound screening
- Stem cell technology for healing bone fractures
- Animal stem cells and animal biotechnology
Back in 2001, when GRA made a recruiting trip to visit Dr. Stice at the University of Massachusetts, they offered him the chance to continue his academic research and start a new bioscience company.