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CDI woman working with cells (copy)

Abbey Musinsky, a research specialist at Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics Inc., grows induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, at the company's labs at 525 Science Drive. FCDI has obtained the license to technology discovered at the University of California-Irvine to manufacture specialized brain cells called microglia that could help researchers find new ways to treat conditions such as Alzheimer's.

A Madison stem cell company plans to manufacture specialized brain cells that it says could help researchers create a path toward better drugs to treat Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.

Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics Inc. has signed an agreement with the University of California-Irvine for an exclusive license to a patent for creating microglia cells, a type of brain cell that plays a critical role in preserving the function of the brain.

The technology is “groundbreaking,” the Madison company said.

“For years and years, researchers have relied on animal models, which do not sufficiently mimic human disease,” said Seimi Satake, chairman and CEO of Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics Inc. (FCDI).

He said the microglia cells that FCDI will manufacture should let researchers create better models of the neurological diseases and compare their findings, helping them to “quickly identify pathways for the development of new drugs.”

Microglia cells are “the immune system of the brain and play a critical role in maintaining the overall health of the neurons in your brain,” Satake said. They also play a role in the brain’s response to injury and disease, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, he said.

FCDI, formerly known as Cellular Dynamics International, at 525 Science Drive, manufactures industrial amounts of iPSCs, or human induced pluripotent stem cells, which are skin or blood cells that scientists reprogram back into their embryonic state and then coax into specific cell types.

The company has developed more than a dozen types of cells, including heart cells and several types of brain cells, used in research nationwide. The heart cells, known as iCell cardiomyocytes, are even being used in tests being conducted on the International Space Station. And UC-Irvine researchers used FCDI’s cells in developing their technology for creating microglia.

The ready-to-use human iPSC-derived microglia will be the first ones that are commercially available to researchers, FCDI said, and will let researchers “better study Alzheimer’s disease in their laboratories.” FCDI also has a non-exclusive license from UC-Irvine to commercialize the medium in which the microglia cells grow in the lab.

“We hope that by making this new technology readily available to the scientific community, researchers worldwide will uncover important new findings and accelerate the discovery of promising therapies,” said Matt Blurton-Jones, associate professor of neurobiology at UC-Irvine and co-inventor of the technology.

Epilepsy, autism and more

Satake said the microglia cells FCDI will make can also be used to study a host of other neurodevelopmental disorders such as epilepsy and autism. “These cells can be used alone or combined with neurons for research into new treatments in the central nervous system,” he said.

Satake said the company plans to make the iPSC-derived microglia and their formulation media available by the end of 2018.

FCDI’s parent company, Fujifilm Corp., has its own drug pipeline for Alzheimer’s disease, with one drug candidate, T-817MA, in phase-two clinical trials in the U.S., Satake said.

Cellular Dynamics International was founded by UW-Madison stem cell pioneer James Thomson in 2004 and purchased in 2015 by Japanese conglomerate Fujifilm Holdings Corp. for $307 million.

The company has 174 employees, including 143 in Madison.

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Contact Judy Newman at jdnewman@madison.com with tips and story suggestions.

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.