12 Dec UW scientist, former WiCell director found stem cell company
Madison, Wis. – It’s not too early to gauge the level of investor interest in Stemina Biomarker Discovery, Inc., a new company formed by Beth Donley and University of Wisconsin-Madison stem cell scientist Gabriela Cezar.
Donley already is rubbing elbows with interested investors, particularly angels, but she knows that one of the key criteria for eventually attracting big dollars from venture capitalists involves occupying a unique market position.
As she develops the business prospectus for Stemina Biomarker, she’s already got an elevator pitch for moneyed people interested in new research space – the use of stem cells in drug discovery and developing tests for diseases.
“I think our sustainable market advantage is that we’re an early mover, an early innovator in using biomarkers and metabolomics to study drugs and their effects,” she said.
Donley, the former counsel for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and former executive director of WiCell, the stem-cell subsidiary of WARF, hasn’t necessarily invented a new term in “metabolomics.” The field, a companion to genomics and proteomics, is the study of metabolism in organisms, and it’s the research focus of Cezar, who came to UW-Madison last year after working as a senior research scientist with Pfizer.
The proprietors got to know each other as part of the stem cell community at UW-Madison. Cezar, who will be the firm’s scientific officer, is an assistant professor in the university’s animal sciences department. She had been working with mouse cells at Pfizer, but she came to Madison to use human embryonic stem cells in her research on the metabolic pathways of organisms – in this particular case, human organisms.
Through those pathways, she identifies biomarkers – chemical signals that stem cells emit when exposed to disease factors or drugs. These biomarkers can be predictive of disease and used to screen drugs. For example, exposing stem cells to drugs that are known to cause birth defects reveals certain biomarkers that can be used to identify other dangerous drugs.
Cezar said other stem cell initiatives are focusing on standardized tests, whereas biomarkers are an “up-and-coming” tool. Although the National Institutes of Health, particularly the National Cancer Institute, has several initiatives to promote biomarkers as a means of early disease detection, Cezar said the opportunity for a business arose because the intellectual property was generated in an area that is largely untapped.
“The best thing about it, in my mind, is that we can take these biomarkers from the dish to the patient,” Cezar said.
The technology can be used to screen drugs, identify targets for drugs, and remedy problems in the metabolic pathways, so the company is seeking three patents through WARF. The patents, which are on hold as part of a “standstill” agreement with WARF, are on the following:
• Biomarkers created by exposing human embryonic stem cells to certain compounds.
• Neural cells derived from human embryonic stem cells.
• Biomarkers produced in cancer cells.
Using cancer stem cells taken from brain tumor cells, Cezar is able to examine biomarkers to predict whether patients will respond well to radiation therapy. This also might be a potential target for drugs that would enhance the therapeutic effect of radiation on cancer patients.
Other impacted conditions could include autism and birth defects that are the result of chemical exposure during pregnancy.
Donley said the company, which might develop products that can be used as diagnostic kits, would have a client base that consists of research labs and pharmaceutical companies.
Bringing down the cost of drug development is another potential benefit of Cezar’s research. By using human cells as part of early screening, researchers might be able to more quickly identify drugs that are going to fail, saving money for pharmaceutical companies and, theoretically, the consumer.
“It’s a technology that really cuts the time between discovery in the laboratory and the benefit to patients,” Cezar noted.
Money and staff
In addition to venture capital, Stemina Biomarker would pursue federal Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants. Donley, who will serve as the company’s chief executive and legal counsel, is looking into requests for proposals that have been issued by various granting agencies.
The company also may be eligible for a state grant under the terms of a new partnership agreement between the state of Wisconsin and WARF. The agreement, announced in September by Gov. Jim Doyle, is designed to meet the state’s goal of capturing 10 percent of the stem cell market by 2015. Among the financial incentives contained in the agreement are state grants of up to $250,000 for stem cell companies that locate or expand in Wisconsin.
Future staffing is another aspect of business operations that the new company has pondered. Given Cezar’s connections in the pharmaceutical industry, she not only has a good idea of the types of products coveted by “pharma” organizations, she already knows of researchers who would be an asset to Stemina Biomarker.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity,” Cezar stated. “Both of us are confident that it will be a successful endeavor for us.”
• Donley resigns as WiCell director
• WARF stem cell patents to be re-examined
• Doyle, WARF announce partnership to lure stem cell companies
• Nation’s only stem cell bank will receive UC-San Francisco cell line
• WiCell, California firm agree to distribute stem cell lines derived with new technique