Friday, September 21, 2018

California's $72 Million Diabetes/Stem Cell Bet: A New Partner from Massachusetts

CRISPR Therapeutics is the latest firm to become involved in a California-
backed stem cell research effort. It uses gene-editing techniques to devise cures.
The California stem cell agency has invested $72 million in a San Diego firm that is pursuing a a functional cure for diabetes and which announced this week it was moving to dodge a major obstacle facing its potential therapy. 

The firm is Viacyte, Inc., a privately held enterprise that has received more funding by far than any other state-backed stem cell firm. It announced on Monday that it had hooked up with publicly traded CRISPR Therapeutics, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., to collaborate on a gene-editing treatment that would evade the body's immune response to earlier Viacyte therapies.

In a Q&A with UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler, Paul Laikind, CEO of Viacyte, said,
"The advantage of an islet cell replacement therapy that has been gene-edited for immune evasion is simply that patients would not need to take immunosuppressive drugs, which can have side effects. Our main mission is to improve the lives of patients with insulin-requiring diabetes by delivering transformative new therapeutic options. The work we are doing on PEC-Direct, PEC-Encap, and now an immune-evasive approach, known as PEC-QT, are all a part of that mission."
The treatment is principally aimed at type 1 diabetes, which afflicts 1.25 million persons in this country, the stem cell agency said in a piece on its blog about the new collaboration.

Viacyte was one of the earliest firms to receive cash from the agency, officially known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The awards began with only $48,950 in 2008 when Viacyte was known as Novocell.

The arrangement with CRISPR will provide more funding for Viacyte, $15 million from its new partner and possibly another $10 million in the form of a convertible promissory note.

CRISPR's stock closed at $48.99 yesterday, down from $55.36 last Friday. Its 52-week high was $73.90 and its 52-week low $16.16.  The firm announced on Wednesday that it was planning to sell $200 million in common stock.  (Here is a detailed presentation on the firm's strategy and research. Here is a link to one analysis of the firm as an investment.)

In the piece on Knoepfler's blog, Laikind also provided an update on Viacyte's other related research. He said,
"(T)he PEC-Encap (also known as VC-01) product candidate has a bright future! We remain enthusiastic regarding the prospects of PEC-Encap, and are actively working on it. In June, two-year data from ViaCyte’s STEP ONE clinical trial were presented at ADA 2018. Although consistent and robust engraftment has been limited in this study to date, results showed that when engraftment does occur, viable mature insulin-expressing endocrine islet cells can be formed. In some cases, insulin-expressing cells have persisted for up to two years after implantation, the longest time point investigated in the study.
"Building on insights gained during the STEP ONE study, ViaCyte is working with W.L. Gore & Associates, one of the world’s top materials science companies with expertise in medical device development and drug delivery technologies, to modify the Encaptra Cell Delivery System and improve the potential for long-term engraftment. This work has yielded positive results in non-clinical models that, based on clinical experience, have been selected to reflect the response in patients. If the progress continues as expected, we plan to resume STEP ONE trial enrollment in 2019.
"As for PEC-Direct (also known as VC-02), the Phase 1/2 clinical evaluation of that product candidate is also continuing. We are now evaluating patients in the second cohort of the trial. As you know, PEC-Direct has the potential to help the patients with type 1 diabetes with the greatest need."
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