9 Regenerative Medicine Companies for Living Longer
The desire to extend lifespan is as old as human civilization. The concept of an “elixir of life” that could confer immortality appeared in the Indian Vedas before 1000 BCE (and perhaps much earlier), and the search for it consumed alchemists for centuries, from ancient China and India to Medieval Europe. Unfortunately, many of the “elixirs” these alchemists created contained heavy metals, which when consumed tended to have the opposite of the intended effect.
Fortunately for us, we may now be living in a time when reality is catching up to myth. With the advent of new knowledge and new technologies, extending healthy human life increasingly appears to be possible. It’s a space that’s frequently referred to as “longevity,” and there are a number of approaches being taken to make sure that running out of retirement money is an inevitability. According to the bright minds at CB Insights, some methods used to increase lifespan include:
- Drugs and Supplements. When cells stop dividing (i.e., become “senescent”), some of them die but others just hang around and secrete inflammatory molecules that damage nearby cells and tissues. This leads to disease, decrepitude, and shorter life. The search is on for drugs that remove those senescent cells and reverse the damage they cause
- Caloric restriction. A less popular method of extending life requires severely restricting caloric intake. Putting mice on near-starvation but nutrient-rich diets extended their life by 50%. It’s something 30% of Americans should give a try for other reasons.
- Count Dracula Approach. In perhaps the most macabre approach to increasing longevity, there appears to be some evidence that blood transfusions from the young confer youthful vigor on the elderly, something that was just firmly denounced by the FDA today.
- Genetic Manipulation. Manipulating the genes that mediate aging has been shown to extend the lifespan of roundworms, flies, and mice. One new company is exploring whether this can be done with dogs and, by extension, humans, but its founders (one of them being George Church himself) are keeping progress, if any, tightly under wraps.
- Regenerative Medicine. This broad category is all about restoring the structure and function of damaged tissues or organs using everything from stem cells to 3D bioprinters.
It’s that last category – regenerative medicine – that we want to look at today. Here are some companies working in regenerative medicine.
Regenerative Medicine From a Unicorn
In case you’re wondering if regenerative medicine has potential, look no further than this unicorn with a $12 billion valuation. Founded in 2008, San Diego startup Samumed took in a whopping $438 million Series A round in August of last year which they’re using to become “a leader in medical research and development for tissue-level regeneration” which brings total disclosed funding to $650 million. The company’s technology is best described in their own words as follows:
One of the primary signaling pathways that regulate the self-renewal and differentiation of adult stem cells is the Wnt pathway, which plays a crucial role in tissue health, ranging from formation to replenishment and from repair to regeneration of various tissues. Conversely, the dysregulation of the Wnt pathway in a particular tissue almost always leads to a disease of that tissue. The ability to modulate the Wnt pathway, and thereby recover and restore the health of diseased tissues, presents significant opportunities in regenerative therapeutics.
The company makes it a point to say that the platform is “not a stem cell therapy” and that they’ve been able to develop small-molecule drugs that “modulate Wnt activity” and sort out everything from osteoarthritis to Alzheimer’s disease.
The drug candidate that’s furthest along in the Samumed pipeline is a drug to sort out male pattern baldness, something we touched on in our article on “When Will There Ever Be a Cure for Baldness?”
Regenerating Blood Vessels
Founded in 2004, North Carolina-based Humacyte is a privately held corporation that has raised $468 million in funding so far to develop a proprietary technology to “grow” Human Acellular Vessels (HAVs) for use in vascular surgery and regenerative medicine. Currently, there are only three options for replacing diseased or damaged blood vessels; pull a vessel from another part of the body, use a donated vessel, or use a plastic tube. The first option requires two surgeries and the loss of a vessel from another part of the body (typically the leg), and the second and third both run the risk of rejection and/or infection. Fortunately, there will soon be a fourth option. Because Humacyte’s HAVs have properties similar to native tissues but have all cells removed, the risk of rejection is low. Humacyte was the first company to receive an FDA Regenerative Medicine Designation and has products in both pre-clinical investigations and in clinical trials.
Stem Cells for Regeneration
Long touted as the answer to many intractable health problems, stem cell research seems finally to be bearing fruit. Founded in 2016, New Jersey startup Celularity has taken in $290 million in funding so far to harvest stem cells from postpartum placentas and uses them to advance several promising therapies designed to regenerate damaged tissue, produce whole organs to replace failing ones, augment immunity, and increase longevity.
In their own words “by replenishing our reservoir of stem cells –– nature’s repair kit –– on an ongoing basis, we can augment our longevity.” Celularity seeks to make 100 years old the new 60, and to provide people with maximal aesthetics, mobility, and cognition as they age. Though it launched just late last year, the company already has over twelve pre-clinical stem cell and new drug trials in progress.
Another recent start-up harnessing the power of stem cells is BlueRock Therapeutics. The company was founded in 2016 when top-tier venture capital firm Versant Ventures and “global pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG provided $225 million in one of the largest-ever Series A financings in biotech history.” The BlueRock Cell+Gene platform starts with pluripotent stem cells (cells that can be directed to develop into any cell type) then engineers them to produce specific enzymes, proteins, and antibodies for therapeutic use. BlueRock’s neurology pipeline aims to restore dopamine-producing neurons and thus regenerate that capacity in victims of Parkinson’s disease. Their cardiology pipeline seeks to use cell therapy to regenerate damaged heart muscle in cardiac patients. In essence, BlueRock’s regenerative medicines will extend life by restoring health to compromised, diseased, or damaged tissues.
Founded in 2013, U.K. startup OxStem has raised $21.8 million in funding to “help people with latent or established degenerative disease live healthier, longer lives.” Regenerative stem-cell therapy typically involves manipulating the cells in the lab and then transplanting them to the patient. OxStem’s approach is to awaken the stem cells that already exist in the patient and induce them to repair tissues damaged by disease or injury. OxStem intends to use this approach to develop therapeutics that treat (and potentially cure) the typically age-related conditions of dementia, heart failure, macular degeneration, cancer, and diabetes. Their intent is to spin out subsidiary companies to address each one of these health areas.
At present, they have established six Stem companies: OxStem Oncology, OxStem Neuro, OxStem Ocular, OxStem Cardio, OxStem Beta, and OxStem Immuno.
Ichor Therapeutics is “a vertically integrated contract research organization with a focus on aging.” The services they offer to universities and other biotech firms include stem cell research, research on senolytics (drugs to combat senescent cells), and lifespan studies. Ichor also has a portfolio of subsidiary companies, most of which are focused on a specific area of longevity and regenerative-related research. Though Ichor itself has only $4.5 million in funding, last year its portfolio company Antoxerene closed a $10 million joint-venture deal with Juvenescence Limited, a British Virgin Islands-based biopharma company focused on developing therapeutics to increase both human lifespan and healthspan.
Retail investors will be happy to know there’s at least one pure-play stock in the regenerative medicine space. With a market cap of around $550 million, Osiris Therapeutics, Inc. (OSIR) “researches, develops, manufactures and commercializes regenerative medicine products intended to improve the health and lives of patients and lower overall healthcare costs.” Unlike many early-stage pharma companies, Osiris is actually turning a profit from this. Revenue for the quarter ending September 30, 2018, was $36.5 million, which represented a gross profit of $26.7 million. This cash flow is a result of their highly successful bio-engineered stem-cell and placental-tissue-based skin substitutes, bone graft substitutes, and cartilage substitutes, which promote healing and repair tissue damaged by age, disease, or accident.
While this next company might fall under the “supplements” category, what they’re doing involves an attempt at regenerating telomeres. Remember telomeres? Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get a little shorter. When they get short enough, the cell stops replicating, which can lead to all sorts of unpleasant outcomes (like death). But what if telomeres could be kept from shortening? Or even lengthened? We reported earlier on T.A. Sciences, which has developed a pill that purports to increase the activity of an enzyme (telomerase) that increases telomere length. The jury is still out on whether this pill will actually increase lifespan, so the practical benefits of genetic manipulation have not yet been realized in humans. However, because telomeres get so much attention, we had to mention them. Given their popularity, expect to see more from us on this topic in the future.
One area of regenerative medicine is organ regeneration. Anyone remember Organovo (ONVO)? They’re a company that was quite popular back in the heydays of 3D printing with their visions of being able to “print” human organs, something we would refer to as “3D bioprinting.” The last time we wrote about Organovo was in our article titled “An Organovo Article With a Negative Spin” at which time the stock was trading for around $5.30 a share. Today, those same shares trade for a fraction of that price at around $1.10 per share representing a loss of almost -80%.
We’ve always cautioned investors about companies that uplist from the OTC market, and so far Organovo hasn’t been able to hit those big revenues they need to keep their financials from looking like this:
While Organovo works to upright the ship, other firms are making progress in the area of bioprinting human organs. At least one other firm is working on 3D printing human tissues and organs. At least one other startup is working on developing technology to 3D print engineered human tissues and organs.
Founded in 2016, San Francisco startup Prellis Biologics has taken in $1.9 million in funding so far to use 3D holographic printing – the fastest high-resolution printing technology on the planet they say – to grow human tissues and cells. According to the company, “standard bioprinting cannot produce transplantable organs and tissues because it fails to match the resolution necessary for function.” The ability to create complex, large format tissues in the laboratory has numerous applications ranging from therapeutics R&D (that’s what Organovo has been doing) to reproducing an organ from a patient’s own cells. If you’re interested in knowing more, there’s a 27-page white paper the startup published that goes over their value proposition in great detail.
Update 07/30/2019: Prellis Biologic has raised $8.7 million in Series A funding to support its mission to use 3D holographic printing to create 3D tissue and organs for research and transplantation. This brings the company’s total funding to $11.1 million to date.
There are hundreds of companies working on various forms of regenerative medicine, and the few we’ve talked about here help demonstrate just how much money is being thrown at treating age-related conditions. It’s also important to think of the social impact of “living longer,” something that may sound appealing but needs to be thought through using a pragmatic approach instead of emotions.
What’s the quality of life you can expect if you’re 84 and your life is extended by 15 years? Will you have enough money in retirement if you extend your lifespan by a couple of decades? These are questions that will soon need to be answered by retirement planners and actuaries who will need to cope with a new world where people live longer, whether through regenerative medicine or the other methods we mentioned earlier. Maybe a better solution is figuring out how to make people stay younger for a longer period of time. And then we find ourselves back to the age-old search for a fountain of youth.
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