Interview with CELLPROTHERA, the regenerative medicine pioneer

CellProthera is a medical biotech company founded in 2008 in Mulhouse, France. The young innovative company focuses on the use of blood peripheral stem cells. CellProthera is the origin of a revolutionary therapy allowing the regeneration of myocardial tissue following acute myocardial infarct (AMI) by injection of a cell graft containing autologous adult stem cells (ASC) previously selected and expanded – ProtheraCytes – in the myocardial muscle. Jean-Claude Jelsch, CEO at CellProthera since 2009, agreed to answer our questions.

Jean-Claude Jelsch, CEO of CellProthera

What is your background?

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I actually have an atypical background. I followed a course at the CNAM (Conservatoire national des arts et métiers) and at the same time I was working for the IT company Bull. Then, I followed a short course in a business school. After that, I worked for 32 years at Ecco (which then became Adecco). I had the opportunity to develop the French Great-East region and Germany, and contribute to diversity the activities of the group until 2000. Finally, I accepted to help the Hematology and Transplantation Research Institute (IRHT) created and managed by Prof. Philippe Hénon.

What can you tell us about CellProthera in a few words?

CellProthera is a young and innovative medical biotechnology company, pioneer in regenerative therapy for tissue repair of the myocardium. The start-up originates from the IRHT in Mulhouse. We developed a biotechnology process which allows the patient’s stem cells to regenerate the myocardium after a myocardial infarction. Nowadays, we have less and less heart donors because there are, amongst other things, less accidents. Today, we are 19 employees, among them there are engineers, technicians, pharmacists, medicine doctors and biology doctors.

How come did you get interested in this medical issue?

One of my co-workers suggested me to take interest in the health sector. The IRHT was encountering some difficulties to raise funds in order to value the innovative therapeutic concept. At the first Board, I indeed had some difficulties in participating given the complexity of the subject, but I was willing to contribute at the financial level. I was not insensitive to the fact of throwing myself into the recognised public-interest association that is the IRHT. I was appointed Chairman of the IRHT, position that I attended for 8 years. In 2008, CellProthera was created, where I currently assume the position of Chief Executive Officer.

How did the technology come to life?

Prof. P. Hénon contributed greatly through his work on blood stem cells. He is a world renowned Haematopoiesis specialist, particularly in New York. The IRHT discovered that CD34+ cells (hematopoietic stem cells) had the ability to differentiate into different cell types (myocardium and blood cells). After conducting trials from 2003 to 2006 in 7 patients who had had a severe myocardial infarction, we proposed them a protocol which consisted of treating them with their own stem cells. Without this protocol, life expectancy ranged between 1 to 3 years. For the scientific community, regeneration of the dead part of the myocardium was a world first. However, the process used to be extremely heavy since it involved cytapheresis and bypass, and Prof. Hénon’s will was to remove these two steps.
We then decided to start fresh. So we developed a new process. We need to make 5 injections of G-CSF (Granulocyte Colony stimulating Factor) in 5 days to make bone marrow stem cells migrate into the blood. On day 5, we take a 200mL blood sample and we put it into a centrifuge. We multiply initial cell concentration by 20 using a culture medium with growth factors. After a 9-day maturation within our machine, we perform an immuno-selection to retrieve the relevant cells and obtain a 15mL graft. The graft is injected through the femoral artery to the left ventricle by using a cardiac catheter (repeated around fifteen times into the dead portion). This is an outpatient surgery which is relatively quick. Given the biological process, it takes 1 to 2 years to obtain a regenerated myocardium. The patient needs to take a treatment and consult his/her cardiologist once or twice per year.

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What about Intellectual Property?

We don’t expect any profit on the machine. Actually, we are currently developing a new machine to optimize cell expansion in order to have at least the capacity to treat 5 patients instead of a single one. Nevertheless, the patient graft kit is a fundamental aspect for CellProthera. We estimate the market in the US, Europe and Japan to be 1 million patients per year. That would represent €50Bn for the kit alone. We then filed the patents on the process, the kit and the machine. The marketing authorisation is based on the overall process.

How advanced are the clinical trials?

Our initial pilot study backs up the fact that blood stem cells are produced in the organism. We will soon be starting European-wide trials with a 10 month inclusion period and 6 month follow-up. Then, we will conduct international clinical trials (US, Canada, Europe) with 150 patients over 20 months. We hope to obtain the marketing authorisation after that.

What are your partners?

We have several, almost all of them French, except for the catheters which are American. The machine and the kits are manufactured in France. We are working with Techno Flex, Bertin Technologies and E3 Cortex.

What is your financing?

Given our business model, we don’t expect a quick ROI (return on investment). The cells here become the treatment so, we had to obtain the pharmaceutical company status and we became a private company in eight months. We have flexible shareholders who support us even if we move relatively fast.

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Innovative process of CellProthera

Do you think about getting listed on the stock exchange?

Not for now. We have raised €19.4M so far thanks to, the French Public Investment Bank (BPI France) which financed us up to €6M. We are confident that we will raise €20M to go to the market. Once we start phase II, we will be able to file the application to get listed.

Do you have competitors?

Actually, the companies who work on cardiac pathologies are not competitors. We act upstream, that’s to say before the infarction becomes chronic and persistent. For instance, the company Carmat targets patients in “terminal” stage. CellProthera can’t treat them, so it’s another market, and a costly one. According to the regulatory authorities, we are alone on this market.

CellProthera received an award (again)…

Indeed, we have already won several prizes and we are supported by Alsace Biovalley and Medicen-Paris. We have been awarded the 2014 UBISTART prize. We are happy to represent Alsace. We  have been asked to apply for these competitions and it is very important for us to gain in visibility and particularly towards investors, in order to help our positioning in France, US and Canada. This was a worldwide recognition because CEOs and top management from Big Pharma were there, including some Medicine Nobel Prize winners, who were participating in the jury.

What are your future prospects?

Although we are now focused on the heart, we might also turn to other organs. However, we already have such a big potential market that if we develop other therapies for other organs, we think about licensing our future potential technologies.

We thank Mr. Jean-Claude JELSCH for answering our questions.

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