A Conversation With Christopher J. Calhoun, CEO of Cytori Therapeutics

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Chris Calhoun_sized.jpgCytori Therapeutics probably ranks somewhere near the top of any list of the world's most innovative medical technology companies--or at least a list of its boldest. As CEO Christopher J. Calhoun explains, the company aims to do nothing less than revolutionize health care by leading the way into an era of regenerative medicine, in which damage from cancer, heart disease, and a host of other ailments can be healed with the body's own cells.

The process relies on naturally occurring regenerative cells. "What we have done," Calhoun says, "is developed products that allow a doctor to take a small amount of fat, the same volume as about half a can of Coke, and separate out these healing cells in about one hour." So far, Cytori's technologies have treated more than 3,000 patients for ailments as diverse as heart attack, heart failure, breast tissue reconstruction after cancer surgery, incontinence, and wounds after radiation exposure. Here, Calhoun discusses medical tourism, the challenges of being an entrepreneur, and why he thinks cell therapy could do for medicine what the silicon computer chip did for technology.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

We restore people's lives using stem cells and other regenerative cells. These cells come from the patients themselves, so we are not destroying embryos or using cells donated by someone else. It turns out that the fat tissue we carry around is the richest source of stem and regenerative cells in the body.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on medicine?

We are at the beginning of a new age in medicine called Regenerative Medicine. The foundation of this is the living cell, although the emerging field will encompass a broad array of technologies. Remember the early days of the Computer Age circa 1978 where there were these new potentially powerful tools, but not a lot of software or applications? Today, almost everything we use or touch is in some way an offspring of this technology. Regenerative Medicine will explode in a similar way with new tools and applications and treatments, many of which are rapidly being developed around the world and I expect will ultimately impact the lives of billions of people. I predict that the innovations around these cell therapies will have as much impact on medicine as the silicon chip has had on technology.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

There is a lot of confusion regarding the source of cells. When people hear "stem cells" they typically immediately relate that to mean "embryonic stem cells," or stem cells that are obtained by killing embryos. Yet, essentially all of the clinical work around the world is based on the adult stem cell. These are cells that we all have in our bodies (even a newborn has "adult stem cells"). We have them because they are involved in the continual cycle of tissue replacement and repair. It is these repair cells that are the most practical and accessible.

What's an emerging trend you think will shake up the health world?

Medical tourism is gaining momentum worldwide. As the world becomes more "flat," medicine becomes somewhat of a commodity. With ever-increasing access to information, patients are doing more research on their conditions, and instead of only having access to treatment at their local medical facility, their reach becomes global. So when new technology is developed and available in one country and not another, savvy patients with the means to access it are able to identify, research, and ultimately receive the care they might not have otherwise. This hopefully will drive down the cost of care, speed the access to innovations, and raise the standard of care globally.

What's a health trend that you wish would go away?

Heart disease is the leading killer in the Western world and has been for more than a century. It has been increasing in prevalence, now representing 17 percent of direct U.S. healthcare costs, and is projected to triple over the next two decades. Cell therapy has the potential to reverse this trend. In our European trial for patients experiencing large heart attacks, more than half the damage was reversed at the six month look compared to no change in the blinded standard of care control group. According to studies published in the literature, this should dramatically reduce the rate of patients progressing to heart failure, recurring heart attack, or death. For certain patients with heart failure who are no longer eligible for other therapies such as bypass surgery or stents, Cytori has completed a European trial demonstrating statistically significant improvement in key heart functional measures at both 6- and 18-month time points, again compared to blinded control patients who received the standard of care. Even though this was a relatively small study, the data is very strong. Based on these outcomes, we anticipate receiving European approval for this application this year.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Early in the development of this technology, the broad therapeutic potential of this cell platform was evident. Of note, these cells age right along with us as we age and so the older we get the fewer of these cells exist, and the lower in quality they are. We know this from our own life experience: for example, when my eight-year-old son breaks his arm, it heals quickly, but when my 78-year-old grandmother breaks her hip, it may or may not heal at all. Therefore, the concept of storing one's cells for use later in life, or "banking," makes complete sense. In the early days, a lot of work was done developing the technology for banking these cells. What we learned along the way is the theory about the chicken and the egg. People generally are not prepared to bank their own cells until there is a proven application. Today, however, much of that banking research is now valuable, as these cells are proving to be useful and the value proposition for banking becomes clear.

Who are three people in the world of health startups that you'd put in a Hall of Fame?

George Rathmann, the founder of Amgen, was an incredible visionary who defined a new paradigm in medicine that has resulted in the largest biotechnology company in the world.

Dr. Frederic Moll, a co-founder of Intuitive Surgical, recognized the opportunity for robotic surgery as a leap in surgical care and innovated an entirely new platform in medicine.

Masaaki Terada, the developer of the flexible endoscope within Olympus Corporation, established a new minimally invasive approach for diagnostics which set the standard for this new class of technology. Mr. Terada is also the business leader who recognized Cytori's potential to impact medicine in a global way and championed the creation of our partnership with Olympus.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Every since I can remember, my interest was always to be an entrepreneur. As a kid, I created small businesses and often recruited friends to help grow them. In college, I had a number of different businesses that I created and ran. So in broad strokes, business interested me. Once I was exposed to medicine and the opportunity to create not only technology and products, but also products that have a meaningful impact on people, on their lives--that was a game changer for me. Over the years, I have met with hundreds of people all over the world whose lives have been touched in some way by technology we created. That is by far the most gratifying thing.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Probably sounds passé, but email is the most powerful tool I use. We have people and customers and contacts all over the world and invariably someone is awake and working at any given time. To be able to communicate with people in 24 time zones seven days a week would be impossible on a one-on-one level without this.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Alive," by P.O.D., which is a rocker interpretation emphasizing the gift of life and not taking opportunities for granted.


Image: Courtesy of Cytori Therapeutics

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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