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Bayer and Versant launch BlueRock Therapeutics
LEVERKUSEN, Germany—Bayer AG announced Dec. 10 that it and Versant Ventures had launched BlueRock Therapeutics, a next-generation regenerative medicine company that plans to develop best-in-class induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) therapies to treat—and hopefully cure—a range of diseases using an what they predict could be an ‘industry-leading platform’ that combines stem cell technology with “superior cell differentiation protocols.”
To enable BlueRock Therapeutics’ platform and pipeline, Bayer and San Francisco- based Versant are committing $225 million, representing what they say is 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, with an initial focus on cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative disorders.
Why form a new company? As Dr. Axel Bouchon, head of the Bayer Lifescience Center (BLSC) told MarketWatch in an interview a few days before the official announcement: “We at Bayer were not so familiar with these new technologies and needed a different spirit to really drive them to maturity.”
“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, a member of the board of management of Bayer. “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 United States, Canada and Japan.
One of BlueRock Therapeutics’ initial programs is to regenerate heart muscle in patients who have suffered a myocardial infarction (MI) or are suffering from chronic heart failure, both of which are leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. 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, a neurosurgeon and founding investigator of BlueRock Therapeutics, to advance stem cell therapy programs that address various neurological diseases with high unmet need. 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 Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (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.
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.
“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,” said 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.”
BlueRock Therapeutics will have research and development operations in Toronto, New York and Boston that will allow the company to benefit from its international and cross-border partnerships.
“iPSC technology has the potential to successfully tackle some of the most challenging diseases on this planet,” said Bouchon, “We are fully aware that this will take time and there are many obstacles to overcome. But by combining the best minds around the globe and providing bold resources we believe we can achieve this ultimate goal of curing such diseases.”
BlueRock Therapeutics is the second large investment by the BLSC, which operates as a strategic innovation unit in Bayer directly reporting to Bayer’s board of management. The BLSC has the mission to uncover, encourage and unlock fundamental scientific breakthroughs in medicine and agriculture more rapidly by enabling innovative partnerships and new company creation with best- in-class biotechnology companies or academia.
And it is no small investment to launch BlueRock. As Biospace writer Mark Terry noted in an article about the deal, “There have been a number of high-profile collaborations recently, where large pharma companies partner with external investors and then outsource the research and development to smaller biotech companies and academic institutions. Those companies have included Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline. None of them are nearly as large as this deal, however.”
It was just about a year ago that BLSC formed a joint venture, Casebia, with CRISPR Therapeutics AG, a gene-editing company co-founded by Versant.