Are Manufactured Kidneys Really the Future of Manchester's Economy?

Sep 20, 2018

Scientists, tech entrepreneurs and government officials are in Manchester this week to talk about human tissue engineering. It's a complicated new technology, but backers say it could transform southern New Hampshire's economy.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with NHPR reporter Sarah Gibson, who spent some time at the conference.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Okay Sarah, tell us about this gathering.

Sure. So I think first we should step back and talk about the industry behind the gathering. The industry is known as regenerative medicine, which is basically growing and manufacturing human tissues and organs. And the gathering was organized by the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, which is a mouthful. It's called ARMI for short, and ARMI is this consortium of biotech groups, nonprofits and elite universities, and its headquarters are in Manchester. It's been around for about a year. The guy behind it is Dean Kamen who people might recognize. He's a longtime force in the tech scene there. And so the conference this week is about how to speed up the regenerative medicine industry.

Remind us, how did ARMI get started?

So a couple of years ago the Department of Defense put out a request for proposals to create a hub for the development and commercialization of human organs. Wounded soldiers would benefit from this, hence the DOD's interest, but it's meant to help anyone really. And so Kamen's proposal for ARMI won. His pitch called for a network with headquarters at the Manchester Millyard developing and marketing the new technology. They got about $80 million from the DOD for this. But most have the money for ARMI, more than $200 million, came from consortium members. And these members would help in the growth of the technology, and they're going to benefit from it as well. So if ARMI is successful, people at this conference I went to say it would transform the medical world.

Transform the medical world – that's pretty bold talk. How exactly would that happen?

Well, think about a kidney transplant. Right now there are over 95,000 people in the U.S. who are waiting for a kidney transplant. It's pretty dire. And people at the conference, the folks behind ARMI, told me they've met academic researchers who have grown a kidney successfully. They've kept it alive in the lab. But there is no plan to systematize that, to scale it up so that you could take a cell from one of those people on the kidney waiting list, grow a kidney from that cell, and then put that new kidney back into their body. Someone told me it's like right now the U.S. has a couple artisans making Rolex watches, but what we really need are massive factories churning out Timex watches at a price point that people will actually pay.

Okay, we're trying to turn this kind of cutting edge science fiction into science fact. This sounds really ambitious. Are we anywhere close to that vision?

Well, no one can predict the pace of invention. Some tissue manufacturing is already happening, but with something as complex as a kidney we are a long way off. People say a decade at the very least. There's a lot that has to happen before then. I talked to this one guy whose growing cells at a startup in Cleveland. It turns out it's really hard to grow cells. You start with a stem cell. Then you have to differentiate the cells. Then you have to keep them alive. If this guy doesn't have a perfectly engineered robot controlled by the perfect software to pipette just the right amount of secret sauce into the petri dish, the cells die. So the process is mind boggling. It takes experts in artificial intelligence, chemistry, biology. It feels like a science fiction movie.

Okay, so we have a ways to go here. You said government officials were at this meeting yesterday along with investors. What role might they play in all of this?

So ARMI is after all partially funded by the Department of Defense. They have a good relationship. And one of the main takeaways from this gathering was that before any of the tissues and organs get to market, you have to go through the clinical trial stage. And that can take years. The FDA has to look at safety. The federal health officials with Medicare and Medicaid, they have to believe in the medical necessity of an invention to agree to pay for it. And those programs, Medicare Medicaid, they're the country's major customer for medicine. So if they're not on board with an innovation, it's not going to happen.

Okay, what about investors Sarah? I mean are they chomping at the bit to get in on this? This is a long term situation.

Yeah, it seems too early for that, even for investors attracted to high risk. I did talk to someone who said there's some curiosity. The fact that there seems to be real industry coalescing under the umbrella of ARMI, they said that's a good sign for a future investor.

Okay, so it sounds like people were coming from all over for this conference. Did you get a sense that some of them are really interested in New Hampshire specifically as a place to grow their business?

Dean Kamen has a vision for Manchester to become the Silicon Valley of regenerative medicine. He said more companies are planning to move here within the year because ARMI is here. But you can work in a regenerative medicine and be a member of ARMI, and just keep your business in Cleveland or Minneapolis. Even With some tax breaks that Kamen did get for companies in recent legislation, I'm not sure we're going to see a flood of biotech into New Hampshire in the immediate future. People said Boston will probably remain one of the major biotech hubs, and so the fact that Manchester is close doesn't hurt. Organizations already in the Millyard are definitely paying attention. So UNH Manchester, they're an ARMI member. They have a relatively new biotech major that's growing. They want to supply a workforce for biotech in New Hampshire. There's a lot of energy there. So that will be something to watch.