Bayer and Versant’s big bet on stem cells

Repeated failure has not dissuaded the sector from chasing the hypothesis that cardiac tissue can be regenerated with stem cell therapy. The latest players are Bayer and Versant Ventures, which invested $225m in Bluerock Therapeutics, a business that will focus on cardiovascular disease as its lead programme.

Bluerock will advance a programme using induced pluripotent stem cell therapies emerging from the University of Toronto that aims to “remuscularise” damaged tissue in patients with chronic heart failure or following myocardial infarction. This approach has not been productive in the past, but Bayer reckons that, should these projects succeed, having exclusive access will be an advantage.

The fund raising is the third-biggest venture round of the year and the biggest series A for at least eight years.

Bluerock will work with specialists from the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University Health Network in Toronto to advance a programme that will seek to restore electrical and contractile function by reintroducing pluripotent stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes.

Its scientific co-founder Michael Laflamme has previously worked with Geron in developing a therapy for heart failure and MI patients, the human embryonic stem cell project GRNCM1, which never entered the clinic.

Better cells

Cell therapy has long been a hope for restoring function to muscle tissue damaged by the loss of oxygen supply in myocardial infarction and heart failure, although nothing has succeeded past phase II. The past year has seen Celyad and Vericel stumble and Stemedica Cell Technologies return some mixed results.

The investors – which last collaborated in forming the joint venture Casebia with Versant-backed Crispr Therapeutics – said that “recent breakthroughs in cell differentiation, manufacturing and engineering” had made this field an attractive opportunity once again.

Bayer, which is seeking to build a heart-failure franchise with vericiguat and finerenone, clearly wants a piece of it, stating that its contribution to the $225m series A round secured exclusive access to the heart failure project and other assets.

A second programme emerges from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, which has pioneered production of dopamine neurons that can be used to treat neurological diseases.

The intellectual property rests with Kyoto University and a Nobel Prize-winning researcher, Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered that mature cells can be induced to become stem cells.

Stem cell therapies have yet to live up to even a fraction of their hype, but there is still reason to believe in the science. Bayer’s approach appears to be sensible, limiting the group's risk while still being able to keep an eye on development.

The question, as always, will be how compelling the data need to be for a full embrace of Bluerock’s programmes. Given the repeated phase III stumbles, Bayer will need to inspect results closely.

To contact the writer of this story email Jonathan Gardner in London at jonathang@epvantage.com or follow @ByJonGardner on Twitter

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