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Minnesota man makes breakthrough in stem cell research

A discovery made in the lab sparked the creation of Anatomic Inc., which sells human stem cell-derived sensory neurons to pharmaceutical companies for the possible creation of new, nonaddictive painkillers.

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Patrick Walsh
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MINNEAPOLIS — Patrick Walsh recently celebrated the fourth year of a business he co-founded, Anatomic Inc., which sells human stem cell-derived sensory neurons to pharmaceutical companies for the possible creation of new, nonaddictive painkillers.

Walsh, who grew up near Forada, Minnesota, earned a bachelor of arts degree in biology with a chemistry minor from the University of Minnesota-Morris, and a master's degree in stem cell biology from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Biology is something Walsh has always been interested in.

"The whole language of biology was really interesting to me," he said. "Getting into stem cell biology is just a more specific language, and it's interesting, what it has the potential to do. It's still early days, but it's an exciting field."

He co-founded Anatomic Inc. with Vince Truong based on a discovery they made in the lab.

"They basically have cells in dishes and these cells are always in danger of being ruined, basically. Imagine it takes a year to make a car or something, and anything can go wrong in the middle (of it)," Walsh explained. "That's kind of what cell manufacture can be like."

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Basically, you want the process to be shorter, and very efficient end-to-end, Walsh said.

"That means you can get something out at the end that can be useful for something downstream relatively sooner without mistakes," he said.

To do this, "I kind of rebuilt from basic principles how to make certain cell types very quickly and efficiently so that you can rely on quality at the end," Walsh said.

He originally targeted dendrocytes, which help neurons do important functions.

"It's very difficult to make those from stem cells," he said. "The most difficult protocols or manufacturing schemes take about six months, so it's like, 'How do I take this six-month process and get it reproducible, get it shorter?' I studied that, and thinking about everything along the way, there's different parts to a process, and you focus on one part of a process and try to get improvements to every part of a process."

The first part of that process takes 10 days in culture.

"What I was able to do in the academic work was to take that 10 days that everyone in the world has to go through and turned it into this 24-hour period by exploring the chemistry a little bit," Walsh said. "So that was a nine-day shortcut that we had that no one else had at the time because it was under development.

"When you get that 10-day shortcut, that gets you to day 11 in 24 hours, so you can focus on day 11 and find shortcuts there," he said. "Basically at the end of the day, what takes 35 days traditionally, we can do in about a week, and that helps tremendously."

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As the company was developed, that process was taken and focused on one neuron in the body, a sensory neuron which "allows you to sense the outside world," Walsh said. "Things like itch and pain and heat, it can notice that. People use that for understanding pain and figuring out new painkillers."

Walsh continued, "As we went out and spoke to people, it became clear that pharmaceutical companies were looking for ways to better understand human pain, so they were looking for nociceptors, or human sensory neurons."

The lab work ended up with what was thought to be a nociceptor, and input was taken from companies to understand what they needed and to see if they could get the cells to perform correctly.

"Eventually you collect all this data that says your cells do what they're supposed to do, and the researchers and pharmaceutical companies will say, 'These seem to do what they're supposed to do,'" Walsh said.

A certain number of cells is required to do the necessary tasks.

"These aren't a renewable cell, so you use them in a test … and then they have to buy more," Walsh said. "So we just keep making the cells, they keep using the cells, and that's how it works."

Walsh said the business could expand further with the development of different types of neurons.

"There's a lot of different types of neurons," Walsh said. "So if you can create new types of neurons and find out why they're useful for people, then you can scale that way."

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Currently, three researchers at the company are working on two neuron types each, so within a year or two they may have six different types plus the one they already have.

"That might help pharmaceutical companies develop different types of drugs for different types of things," Walsh said. "That's one aspect of the business, is trying to support pharmaceutical companies as they do their research.

"Then there's this completely different side of what you could be trying to do, for making human neurons," he said. "Some people today are injecting the stem cell-derived neurons directly into patients, because for some diseases you lose your neurons, and the thought is if neurons are lost you can replace them. That's called cell therapy. That's a different type of business."

Although that kind of expansion is at least a 10-year process, Walsh said that "for companies like us, that's kind of the dream."

Anatomic Inc. recently celebrated its fourth year in business. It was at this celebration that Walsh's mother, Debra, who lives in the Alexandria, Minnesota, area, encouraged him to reach out to the media.

"She wants to read it in the paper," he said.

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