New stem cell company launched by US$225 million Bayer and Versant funding

Bayer AG (Leverkusen, Germany) and US health care investor Versant Ventures (San Francisco, CA, USA) are launching a new stem cell research company, BlueRock Therapeutics in the USA and Canada, which will focus on developing treatments for heart conditions and degenerative disease such as Parkinson’s disease.

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Multinational chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer AG (Leverkusen, Germany) and alongside US healthcare investor Versant Ventures (San Francisco, CA, USA) are investing US$225 million in a new stem cell research company, BlueRock Therapeutics (Toronto, ON, Canada), in the second largest Series A biotechnology investment in the history of the industry. This funding will fuel research focusing on heart conditions and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and will position BlueRock Therapeutics at the cutting edge of iPSC research.

BlueRock Therapeutics will use technologies and intellectual properties invented by Nobel Prize winner Dr Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and licensed from iPS Academia Japan Inc. (both Japan), allowing the company to produce iPSCs.

Toronto was chosen as a location for this new venture due to the presence of top Canadian researchers, such as Gordon Keller, director of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Toronto’s University Health Network. Dr Keller has discovered a method to turn pluripotent stem cells into specialized heart cells that could replace damaged tissue in patients that have had heart attacks. “I think it really represents almost a watershed moment in the transition from [pluripotent stem cells] being an idea to this being a real therapy for patients,” Dr Bradley Wouters, executive vice-president of science and research at the University Health Network, said.

The startup will also benefit from a partnership with the Toronto-based Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), a leader in developing and commercializing regenerative medicine, cell and gene therapies. Furthermore, BlueRock Therapeutics will have research and development operations in New York and Boston (USA), which will help improve global partnership opportunities.

A joint venture between a venture-capital firm and a pharmaceutical company is increasingly common in the industry of drug development and biotechnology. Instead of conducting expensive research and development in-house, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly turning to smaller firms.


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Freya Leask

Publisher, Future Science Group

I am the Publisher of RegMedNet, 3DMedNet, RxNet and The Evidence Base, here to help users make the most of the websites and build our expert communities. I am passionate about digital and STM publishing, social media and story-telling. Please get in touch if you have any queries or comments!


Go to the profile of James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D.

Though it is fantastic to hear about this level of investment in stem cell therapeutics development, I am disappointed to also learn that the reported focus for the source of therapeutic cells is induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). This choice raises grave concerns that there may be significant knowledge gaps among BlueRock Therapeutics scientists on the stem cell biology of human tissues.

In order to restore, maintain, and renew human tissues stably, normal asymmetrically self-renewing tissue stem cells are an absolute requirement. IPSCs and the committed and differentiated cells produced from them cannot meet this requirement. Injected iPSCs are tumorigenic; and the mature cells produced from them do not renew.

The exact cause of iPSC tumorigenicity has not been determined. It could result simply from the introduction of pluripotent cells into homeostatic tissue environments. However, the many genetic and epigenetic mutations observed in iPSCs could also be the responsible carcinogenic agents. In the latter case, such deficiencies would also preclude the use of tissue stem cells derived from iPSCs for stem cell transplantation medicine.

It is noteworthy that the company indicates a focus on cardiovascular and neurological diseases. These are tissues in which mature cell renewal rates are relatively low compared to epithelial tissues. Therefore, it may be possible to use iPSC-derived differentiated cells, respectively, as patches for failing and injured hearts or to provide neural bridging in injuries and diseases of the central and peripheral nervous system. Even so, this approach is not without significant pitfalls related to well known intrinsic properties of iPSCs. The genetic and epigenetic mutations noted earlier may also compromise the function of mature cells derived from iPSCs. Even more problematic, iPSC-derived differentiated cells typically only achieve a fetal level of differentiation, which may not be adequate to restore functions that are deficient in the mature tissues of children and adults.

Based on the current state of iPSC knowledge, BlueRock Therapeutics' immediate future will more than likely be as a new iPSC research company. If it is possible to engineer these cells to be effective cell therapeutics, it will require significant new breakthroughs in knowledge of their biological applicability to processes in mature human tissues. My advice to the investors in BlueRock Therapeutics' and others considering investments in the exciting space of stem cell medicine is, "Invest in natural occurring adult tissue stem cells technologies, too." Adult tissue stem cells already do naturally everything that iPSCs were never designed to do.

James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D.
Asymmetrex, LLC
Boston, MA 02130, USA

Go to the profile of Freya Leask
Freya Leask over 3 years ago

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, James - we will make sure to keep our RegMedNet community updated with any BlueRock breakthroughs, in biological applicability knowledge or otherwise!