TORONTO, ON-Bayer AG and venture capital firm Versant Ventures are dedicating $295 million ($225 million USD) to the creation BlueRock Therapeutics, a stem cell company that will work in collaboration with institutions from Canada, the U.S., and Japan.
To be based in Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, as well as in New York and Boston, the new company will first work on developing best-in-class induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) therapies to cure a range of diseases, including heart and degenerative brain disease, using an industry-leading platform. Importantly, the basis for the overall approach is iPSC intellectual property (IP) invented by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and licensed from iPS Academia Japan Inc., which manages iPSC IP. This foundational IP will allow the company to create iPSCs, which will be an important cell source.
“Accessing cell based therapies is part of Bayer’s strategy. We are launching this enterprise to develop transformative and curative therapies for patients based on the latest stem cell technology,” said Kemal Malik, member of the board of management of Bayer AG and responsible for Innovation. “We have partnered with Versant Ventures to build a leading player in this field by securing exclusive access to these breakthrough technologies for BlueRock Therapeutics.”
BlueRock Therapeutics’ platform is enabled by strategic partnerships with a number of leading academic and industry collaborators in the U.S., Canada and Japan. One of BlueRock Therapeutics’ initial programs is to regenerate heart muscle in patients who have had a heart attack (myocard infarction, MI) or are suffering from chronic heart failure, leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. An MI may cause severe secondary diseases such as heart failure or irregular heartbeat.
The program is being advanced in collaboration with the Toronto-based McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine and University Health Network (UHN) including Dr. Gordon Keller, who is a world leader in stem cell biology and a scientific co-founder of BlueRock Therapeutics, and Dr. Michael A. Laflamme, who is a cardiac cell therapy pioneer and founding investigator of BlueRock Therapeutics. The goal of the program is to restore the electrical and contractile function of injured hearts through remuscularization with pluripotent stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes.
Integral to BlueRock Therapeutics’ formation is a wide-ranging strategic partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering, Dr. Lorenz Studer, a scientific co-founder of BlueRock Therapeutics and 2015 MacArthur Genius Award winner, and Viviane Tabar, neuro surgeon and founding investigator of BlueRock Therapeutics, to advance stem cell therapy programs that address various neurological diseases with high unmet need. Dr. Studer, a world leader in the field of developing neurons from stem cells has pioneered large scale production of dopamine neurons and his research has led to important breakthroughs that show the potential to directly treat PD through replacement therapy with functional, stem cell-derived, dopamine-producing neurons.
The manufacturing platform at BlueRock Therapeutics will be enabled by a partnership with the Toronto-based CCRM, a leader in developing and commercializing regenerative medicine technologies, and cell and gene therapies. CCRM has developed technologies and expertise to support robust and scalable GMP production of various stem cell types for cellular therapeutics.
“We all know Canadian scientists are world renowned in how stem cells can be used to repair damaged tissue,” said Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, who attended the company launch announcement. “The considerable investment being made now is validating that expertise.”
“We have closely tracked the field of regenerative medicine for the past five years and believe the time is right to invest in stem cell therapies given recent breakthroughs in cell differentiation, manufacturing and engineering,” adds Dr. Jerel Davis, managing director at Versant Ventures. “We are delighted to team up once again with Bayer and to be partnering with such a distinguished group of founders and institutes.”
Bayer and Versant’s financial commitments represent one of the largest-ever series A financings for a biotech company. The funds are projected to give BlueRock Therapeutics at least four years of runway and will allow the new company to advance a number of programs into the clinic.
The BlueRock Therapeutics board of directors will be comprised initially by Dr. Brad Bolzon and Dr. Jerel Davis representing Versant Ventures and Dr. Juergen Eckhardt and Dr. Axel Bouchon representing Bayer.