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Stem Cell Biotech Gains $44M in First Venture Round

Human stem cell derived beta cells

Human stem cell derived beta cells in mice (Doug Melton, Harvard University)

24 March 2015. A biotechnology start-up developing a stem-cell technology to replace missing beta cells that produce insulin for patients with type 1 diabetes, secured $44 million in its first venture funding round. Funding for Semma Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts was led by MPM Capital, with participation by Fidelity Biosciences, ARCH Venture Partners, and Medtronic.

Details about a separate agreement with the pharmaceutical company Novartis were not disclosed.

Semma Therapeutics is licensing research findings by its scientific founder biologist Douglas Melton, co-director of Harvard University’s Stem Cell Institute. Melton studies beta cells, which when functioning properly, produce insulin in the pancreas. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body store and process glucose provided by food in the diet.

Type 1 diabetes is a condition where the body’s immune system is tricked into destroying beta cells. Some 3 million people in the U.S. have type 1 diabetes, including many children and young adults, who need to replace their insulin supply daily through injections or devices such as insulin pumps.

Melton’s interest in type 1 diabetes goes beyond business and science. As reported in Science & Enterprise in October 2014, his son and daughter were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as children, and he made finding a cure the goal of his career. Researchers in Melton’s lab designed a culturing protocol for transforming human embryonic stem cells into pancreatic and endocrine progenitor cells, and then into beta cells.

Their techniques enabled the team to generate hundreds of millions of beta cells in the lab that perform the same insulin-secreting functions, responding to glucose as normal mature beta cells. Tests of the beta cells in animals show their genes express similarly to normal beta cells, and enable control of blood glucose levels.

Semma Therapeutics is extending Melton’s discoveries into processes for implanting the engineered beta cells in people with type 1 diabetes so they function similar to people without the disorder, and that protects the recipients from an immune-system reaction.

The funds raised in this first venture round, plus the agreement with Novartis are expected to fund development of Semma Therapeutics’ technology through early clinical development that shows the solution is feasible. While the nature of the Novartis agreement was not disclosed, Novartis’s research labs are concentrating on autoimmune disorders as one of their key targets.

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Hat tip: Fortune/Term Sheet

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