Robert Lanza, one of the most prominent scientists in the field of stem cell biology, on Monday said he will lead global regenerative medicine research at Astellas Pharma Inc., the Japanese drug maker that acquired his Massachusetts company this month.
Lanza said he will also remain in his current role of chief scientific officer at Astellas-owned Ocata Therapeutics Inc. in Marlborough, which is developing stem cell therapies for a broad range of diseases.
“We have plans to immediately start expanding the research and the number of [drug development] programs,” Lanza said, after a week of meetings with Astellas executives. “In the coming year, we’re going to substantially increase our staffing.”
In addition to the 38 employees at Ocata now, Lanza will be working with an Astellas regenerative medicine team based in Tokyo on treatments for macular degeneration and other eye diseases, as well as lupus, Crohn’s disease, lung disease, and complications from diabetes, he said.
Lanza’s announcement answered one of the most pressing questions posed by opponents of the Ocata takeover and others in the biotech industry: What role, if any, would he play in the company following the $379 million buyout?
“Astellas has determined that the Boston area was the ideal location to expand their regenerative medicine presence,” Lanza said in an earlier e-mail. “Astellas has an incredibly talented team that is committed to finding new regenerative medicine therapies, and in particular for diseases that have no treatments.”
Lanza, 60, who in 2001 was the first scientist to clone an endangered species, is responsible for hundreds of inventions, books, and scientific papers on stem cell biology and tissue engineering. He is adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in world in 2014.
At Ocata, formerly known as Advanced Cell Technology Inc., he has led the development of stem cell therapies for macular degeneration and other debilitating conditions. None have yet been submitted for regulatory approval.
Astellas had to extend a tender offer twice this winter before it gathered enough shares to complete the transaction, with some investors complaining that its offer undervalued Ocata and others objecting to the company being sold to a foreign buyer.
Lanza said he understood shareholders’ concerns but is confident that Astellas is committed to pushing Ocala’s programs forward and putting financial resources behind them.
“We’re all human beings, and whether you’re in the United States or Japan, if we succeed it’s going to help everybody,” he said.
In his e-mail, Lanza said he had been in “back-to-back integration meetings” with Astellas executives for a week.
He sounded an upbeat note: “I’ve spent my life trying to find ways to help these patients and I can honestly say for the first time that we have the resources to succeed,” he wrote.
Lanza said Astellas has given him “the green light to move ahead, not only with our various eye programs, but for a diverse range of other diseases, including several promising therapies that had to be tabled [by Ocata] because of a lack of staff and money.”
He also said that “I can assure investors who believed in Ocata that their dedication was not in vain. The research programs are in good hands, and with people who truly believe in the science.”