Embryonic Stem Cell Research Foe, Tracy Deisher, Seeks to Market Pro-Life Vaccines

10/1/10Follow @xconomy

The woman who helped bring the U.S. embryonic stem cell research enterprise to a standstill for a couple weeks this summer is also a Seattle biotech entrepreneur who wants to create what she calls the first pro-life vaccine company.

Theresa “Tracy” Deisher, a Stanford-trained molecular physiologist, made national news in late August as one of the co-plaintiffs who successfully challenged the Obama Administration’s year-old policy that provided additional funding for embryonic stem cell research. The big news broke when a U.S. District Court judge agreed to block the Obama Administration’s executive order, saying it violated a federal ban on embryo destruction dating back to the 1990s. The Obama Administration is appealing the judge’s ruling, and an appeals court judge has since allowed federally funded stem cell research to continue while the legal argument continues.

The latest chapter in the stem cell research controversy has rekindled this decade-long debate that has the classic ingredients of a big story—religion, science, politics. Deisher, along with co-plaintiff James Sherley of the Boston Biomedical Research Institute, were at the center of it all, appearing in a flurry of stories from the Associated Press, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets.

While most of the attention focused on the legal and political storylines, not much has been written about Deisher’s career or her for-profit and non-profit ventures here in Seattle. So naturally I wanted to know more. And as luck would have it, her lab and office is one floor downstairs from my office on Seattle’s First Hill, so she came over a couple weeks ago to talk about it.

Deisher made clear that her goal is to create a new kind of biotech enterprise, Ave Maria Biotechnology, built to serve a moral purpose. The idea is to provide vaccine alternatives for people with strong religious beliefs, who reject standard commercially available vaccines that were derived via cells from aborted fetal tissue.

“We are clearly unique in that we are open and upfront about our pro-life mission,” Deisher says. “Our pro-life work is our top responsibility. For most companies, fiduciary return is the top priority. We hope our investors will make lots of money, but that’s not our first objective. We won’t compromise our pro-life mission for economic returns.”

Tracy Deisher

Tracy Deisher

Deisher, 47, was born and raised in Seattle. She got her scientific training at Stanford, and received a PhD in molecular and cell physiology in 1990. She ended up coming back to Seattle to work as a scientist at some of the region’s best known companies—ZymoGenetics, Immunex, and then Amgen. After that came a stint at CellCyte Genetics, a company that ran into trouble with federal securities regulators when it made exaggerated claims about stem cell research. Deisher had a public falling out with that company over their exaggerated claims, which the SeattlePI wrote about in February 2008.

Deisher’s political leanings changed dramatically over the course of her life, according to the Wall Street Journal. Deisher told the Journal she was once a “radical feminist” but changed her mind after seeing the negative effects of abortion on some of her friends. She has moved on to speak at antiabortion rallies.

Now Deisher is in an unusual position to apply her scientific background in a way that’s consistent with her beliefs. After she left CellCyte, Deisher decided to set on out on her own. She founded the for-profit Ave Maria Biotechnology, also known as AVM Biotech, and the nonprofit Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute.

Ave Maria Biotechnology was registered as a for-profit company with the Washington Secretary of State’s office in June 2008. Ave Maria has mostly been financed by Deisher herself, and has relied heavily on young scientific staff who are willing to donate their services for the cause, Deisher says. About 11 months after the company was founded, it raised $175,000 in equity, debt, and warrant securities out of a financing round that could potentially be worth $1 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The company, on its website, says it objects to the use of cell lines from aborted fetuses in biomedical research, a practice that has become increasingly common in the pharmaceutical industry over the past decade. While many scientists have argued these cell lines are necessary to provide realistic conditions in the lab, Deisher rejects that idea.

“It has not held up empirically,” Deisher says, adding that pharma and biotech companies have haven’t been able to improve their success rate at creating new drugs and vaccines by using fetal cell lines in research.

Vaccines are a particular point of interest: Two mandated childhood vaccines (measles/mumps/rubella and chickenpox) are derived from fetal cell lines, Deisher says. Those vaccines alone generate about $1.2 billion in revenue for pharma companies each year, or a little more than one-fourth of the vaccine market. AVM notes that there are just over 4 million live births in the U.S. each year, and about one-tenth of those children don’t get vaccinated because … Next Page »

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