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Start-Up Creating Off-the-Shelf Stem Cell Therapies

Chad Cowan

Chad Cowan (Mary Todd Bergman, Harvard Stem Cell Institute)

27 Mar. 2019. A new company is licensing technology from the lab of its co-founder at Harvard University to develop stem cell therapies for any recipients, without causing immune reactions. Financial terms of the license with Sana Biotechnology Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts were not disclosed.

Sana Biotech is acquiring processes created in the lab of its co-founder Chad Cowan, a researcher in Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Cowan studies induced pluripotent stem cells, also known as adult stem cells, since they’re derived from existing human tissue and not from embryos. Adult stem cells from individuals are genetically altered and cultured in the lab, then induced to differentiate, or transform, into various types of cells and tissue that can replace damaged counterparts in the body. With current technologies, however, stem cells must be taken from and new transformed cells returned to the same patient, which makes the customized process labor-intensive and expensive.

Cowan’s research, and now Sana Biotech, take a different approach: creating stem cells for regenerative medicine that can be transformed into cells and tissue for people other than the donor. To meet that need, the company plans to produce stem cells that do not induce a damaging response from the recipient’s immune system. Cowan studies the relationship between genetics and disease through the prism of stem cells and described, for example, the ability to connect genetic variations in stem cells to cellular traits, to reveal the molecular basis of many diseases. He also works with the genome editing technique Crispr to alter characteristics of stem cells, and create lab models of diseases for drug screening.

Sana Biotech plans to take Cowan’s work one step further. The company aims to genetically engineer stem cells to reduce the production of immune-system proteins that cause damaging reactions in recipients. These basic platform stem cells can then be further altered and cultured to transform into off-the-shelf replacement cells in the body, such as for heart muscle, blood vessels, liver, and beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. “Overcoming the immune-rejection barrier is essential for making stem cell–derived therapies broadly accessible,” says Cowan in a university statement. “These inventions give us the tools to create treatments and cures for a host of conditions that have few, if any, effective treatments today.”

The company was officially launched in January 2019 with Cowan and Harvard genetics professor and fellow Stem Cell Institute researcher Richard Mulligan as scientific founders. Steven Harr, another co-founder, joins Sana Biotech as the company’s CEO from Juno Therapeutics, where he was chief financial officer. Cowan is Sana Biotech’s chief scientist. The company also has offices in Seattle and South San Francisco, California.

Sana Biotech incubated in Harvard’s biomedical business accelerator, which provided initial funding for the company, but since received seed financing as well from life science venture investors ARCH Venture Partners, Flagship Pioneering, and F-Prime Capital. The amount of that seed funding was not disclosed.

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