The Niche

Business round-up: pluripotent products, all-star academics and headlines everywhere

Academic all-stars from the East and West Coasts of the US have united to advise a company with plans to use induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to find drugs. The company, created from the merger of Boston-based Perian and San Francisco-based iZumi, will be called iPierian and run by iZumi CEO John Walker from San Francisco.

See account in FierceBiotech and Q&A with John Walker about iZumi’s business plan (subscription to Nature Biotechnology required)

It’s not just the name that’s new:

Corey Goodman, former Pfizer executive, serial entrepreneur, and HHMI scholar will chair the scientific advisory board, and iPierian has just received $11.5 million, the bulk of which comes from East Coast VC firm MPM capital. In addition, six members of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute are signing on as advisors; these include George Daley, Doug Melton, and Lee Rubin, who founded Perian, as well as David Scadden, the Institute’s co-director. Alongside these academics will be Deepak Srivastava of San Francisco’s Gladstone Institute, who has been an advisor to iZumi. Two other faculty from the Gladstone are also on the advisory board.

Asked about the potential for conflicts between the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which has promised to ship new iPS cell lines to academics at cost, and iPierian, which claims extensive intellectual property over human induced pluripotent stem cells, iPierian spokespeople instead spoke about the complementary skills of academia and industry: Daley spoke of the need to optimize bioprocesses to make them efficient, highly reproducible and cost-effective. “Those are challenges that are extremely important for the field but are something that academia is not particularly good at,” he said.

The same names are popping up on scientific advisory boards for other companies, each with distinct strategies for using stem cells to make money. Fate Therapeutics is looking for small-molecule drugs that stimulate stem cells and has recently launched a clinical trial for a small molecule that might boost the success of cord blood transplants. Stemgent sells reagents and other tools for generating and differentiating pluripotent stem cells.

There is overlap between the companies’ advisors. Lee Rubin and Doug Melton advise both Stemgent and iPierian. Scripps’ Sheng Ding, MIT’s Rudolf Jaenisch, and Harvard’s Len Zon advise both Fate and StemGent. Indeed, StemGent and Fate recently created a common third entity called Catalyst as an idea and intellectual property clearing house that would provide services to pharmaceutical companies.

It’s not unusual for academics to be on advisory boards for multiple companies, but this kind of overlap, particularly with academics from the same institutions, is unusual. And the Harvard Stem Cell Institute itself is also seeking to work with drug companies, as a recent deal with GSK indicates.

The stem cell community constantly talks about the need to co-ordinate and collaborate, particularly in better ways to evaluate iPS cells. The obvious hope for these overlapping groups of experts is that people who understand each other well can get more things done. One worry is that talented outsiders stay on the outside. Another worry is that conflicts between academic and corporate goals might be harder to resolve when so many people from the same institution are involved.

Meanwhile, Cellular Dynamics International in Wisconsin, co-founded by stem cell rock star James Thomson, has announced a deal with Roche to supply cardiomyocytes generated from iPS cells for drug screening.

In other news, ArunA and Thermo Scientific have also announced an iPS cell kit to be made available for distribution.

Also at ISSCR, Stemgent announced that Sigma is likely to start distributing all of Stemgent’s lentivirus-based iPS cell generation kits, starting sometime this fall.

Shares of Geron jumped 23 percent after the biotech company announced a collaboration with GE Healthcare to develop embryonic stem cell products that researchers can use in drug discovery work and toxicology screening. (See report from Reuters )

And Geron is not the only cell therapeutics company getting some big-pharma revenue for small molecule screening. Pfizer and Novocell put a deal in place at the end of last year. See also Diabetes stem cell treatment looks to cell capsules.


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