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Banking on the future of medicine: Grand Forks start-up stores human cells for later treatment

GRAND FORKS -- The goal of a Grand Forks start-up is to get customers to prepare for a future in which today's medical breakthroughs based on stem cells are commonplace.

"You would ordinarily think this is science fiction," said Vin Singh, founder of Next Healthcare, based at University of North Dakota's Center for Innovation.

Singh is referring to developments in regenerative medicine in which researchers have used stem cells to re-grow lung, cornea and trachea cells and create other types of human tissue. These advances point to a future when replacing organs will become a common medical procedure.

And he wants people to act now.

Singh's business, which he has been building since 2009 and launched this past spring, is a cell bank, storing samples of clients skin, blood and bone marrow cells for future use when regenerative treatments are improved and widespread.

"We know some of them are going to work, and we're betting that you're going to be able to use some of your cells," Singh said. "If and when those therapies come on line, you will have that healthy seed."

Betting on the future

Singh's resume lists a number of companies in the biomedical field. But the basis of his new business is essentially storage, freezing samples of clients' tissue that could be used by doctors to treat future health problems.

Clients' doctors collect their tissue samples and send them to Next Healthcare in Grand Forks, where they are stored frozen. The company is based in UND's REAC building, which provides biocontainment facilities. Next Healthcare also has a second storage facility in North Dakota at an undisclosed location, Singh said.

The key to therapies that Singh's company is betting on -- and wants prospective customers to bet on -- are advances within the last decade that have manipulated non-stem cells from skin or blood to mimic stem cells' ability to grow into different types of tissues.

"That could be the holy grail of regenerative medicine," Singh said.

The stem cells can be generated from adult cells, avoiding the questions over the use of fetal stem cells that has made the science controversial. Patients' own healthy cells will be more effective in their treatments if they become sick later. Singh said cells taken from patients who are young and healthy will be more useful for the therapies.

Singh has spent most of the time since the company's founding lining up investors and establishing a network of doctors to bring the service to clients.

Though his professional background is in the Washington, D.C., area, a hub of the medical research industry, Singh was looking for a central location for convenient shipping that would also keep the stored samples relatively safe from natural disasters.

An encounter with a North Dakota Department of Commerce official at a trade show led him to Grand Forks. UND's REAC building, designed in part to cater to research and medical companies, provided ready-to-go space and the university and the medical school offered a connection to scientific and medical expertise.

"It was a combination of the right people, the right talent and the right sources of funding," said Bruce Gjovig, head of the Center for Innovation at UND.

Singh's job for now is to build up clients for the service. The challenges include convincing people to take steps now to enable themselves to use medical treatments still being developed -- to bet on future treatments and the possibility they will need them.

Clients also need to be willing to pay an initial fee of $2,800 and an annual fee of $199 for storage.

Singh said the service appeals to those with a family history of inherited diseases or those who are more aware of developments in regenerative therapy. As the science advances, he believes it will become more widely embraced.

"When people realize what kind of amazing things are going on, in my mind, that's going to trigger that interest," Singh said. "The average person has a high level of interest in learning something more about stem cells."

Gjovig said the business would have to reach early adaptors of stem cell applications. But as those become used more often, skepticism about the futuristic aspects of business will decrease.

"I don't think people are skeptical of it if they need medicine," Gjovig said.

Next Healthcare's marketing materials and website, www.NextHealthcareInc.com, provides links to medical journals and research on stem cell applications in its presentation of developing therapies.

Singh said his goal to promote the company with real science, not speculation or hype.

"We don't talk about things that might happen. We talk about data," he said. "We only talk about things backed by peer-reviewed, published data."

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