Life sciences briefing: Friday, Nov. 30, 2007

Featured companies: Fate Therapeutics, Medgenics, Satoris

UPDATED: Expanded items on Fate Therapeutics and Medgenics. The Satoris item is now a standalone post here.

fate-therapeutics-logo.jpgFate Therapeutics launches regenerative-medicine quest with $12M — In one of the splashiest launches in recent memory, Seattle’s Fate Therapeutics launched a new regenerative-medicine quest and raised $12 million to help it along. The company aims to develop drugs that redirect fundamental cell biology in ways that mimic the regenerative powers of stem cells, either by “reprogramming” normal cells into stem cells or by directing existing “adult” stem cells in the body to activate their regenerative powers.

I mentioned the hype, right? Fate’s release — and its Web site — prominently quotes one of its scientific advisors saying the company’s approach amounts to “the dawn of a new day in medicine,” so it seems safe to say that the company doesn’t lack for self-confidence. Fate also arranged a slew of positive press coverage timed to its announcement, including this story in Forbes.

Fate has assembled a team of scientific stem-cell luminaries — see the release for details — and the potential of this sort of approach is certainly huge. At the moment, most stem-cell companies are trying to use transplanted cells themselves to regenerate damaged or diseased tissues, still an unproven approach with a number of shortcomings — among them, the likelihood that patients receiving cell transplants will have to take immunosuppressive drugs to prevent transplant rejection.

By contrast, targeted drugs that can push existing cells back into a primordial, regenerative state could open up entirely new forms of medical treatment. Assuming, that is, that everything works — and that’s a big if at this point. Understanding of cells’ natural regenerative mechanisms remains in its infancy, so it’s probably worth taking Fate’s grander claims with a grain of salt until the company proves that it can do what it claims it can.

Here’s Forbes on what Fate has in store for us:

Already, Fate Therapeutics has treatments in clinical trials to improve the potency of cord-blood stem cells and to treat myelodysplastic syndromes, anemias that strike 10,000 Americans a year. Another drug program might help reduce the impact of the genetic disorder that causes Down syndrome. Other treatments could affect the same litany of diseases touted as targets for stem cell therapy: Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis and Parkinson’s, to name a few. Because tumors are caused by stem cells run amok, drugs to turn down their activity might be potent cancer medicines.

Fate, of course, isn’t alone in this quest. Plasticell, a fairly new U.K. biotech with a much lower profile than Fate, is also looking for non-invasive ways to tap cellular regeneration; see our coverage here.

Investors in the funding include Arch Venture Partners, Polaris Venture Partners, Venrock and OVP.

medgenics-logo.jpgMedgenics raises £3.3M in London IPO — Vienna, Va.-based Medgenics, a biotech that aims to help patients produce genetically modified protein drugs within their own bodies, raised £3.3 million ($6.8 million) in an initial offering associated with its listing on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange, VentureWire reports (subscription required). The company is developing “Biopumps,” which are tiny protein “factories” made from a patients’ own tissue that are designed to provide lasting drug treatment for chronic conditions such as anemia or hepatitis.