Amgen’s venture arm just made a bet on regenerative medicine for the first time. The pharma giant pitched in to a new $25 million financing round for Canadian stem cell company Fortuna Fix.
Fortuna is working on new ways to regrow neural tissue damaged by degeneration and trauma. With its technology, the company hopes to mimic the capabilities of the Mexican salamander, known for its ability to regrow its own spinal cord, jaw, tail, skin and limbs — all without scarring.
The company says it’s reproduced this phenomena in test tubes by starting with regular old multipotent stem cells, which can be taken from any tissue (hair, skin, bone marrow, etc.) and re-engineered into neural stem cells. There’s a name for this kind of stem cell therapy, but it’s a mouthful: autologous multipotent stem cells produced by direct reprogramming. The good thing about these stem cells is they don’t tend to spark tumor growth nor do they stimulate the immune system — two of the biggest challenges facing stem cell therapies.
In theory, such reprogrammed cells can be injected into a patient multiple times, allowing for a treatment regimen that could fully regenerate the tissue in mind. Fortuna is hoping its neural stem cells will regenerate the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients.
Regrowing brain tissue in PD
PD patients lack the brain chemical dopamine, which helps control muscle movement. Neural stem cells have the ability to make and replace the dead and dying dopamine-producing cells in patients, replacing the missing neurotransmitter and reversing the symptoms.
Fortuna, founded in 2015, will use cash from the new financing round to do Phase I/IIa clinical trials in PD as well as spinal cord injury.
Fortuna’s CEO and CSO Jan-Eric Ahlfors said the company’s technology might soon deliver stem cells that can “readily replace lost neurons, do not require immune suppression, are ethically sourced, efficacious and address some of the largest unmet medical needs.” And Amgen is willing to put up some cash to see if it works.
Amgen’s first foray into cellular regeneration
This is Amgen’s first investment in regenerative medicine, but the company’s long been interested in treating neurodegeneration. The company partnered with Novartis back in 2015 to develop a BACE inhibitor to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The molecule is currently in Phase III testing.
Now, two Amgen VPs are tied to the investment deal with Fortuna. John Dunlop, VP of neuroscience discovery research at Amgen, will sit on Fortuna’s scientific advisory board. Philip Tagari, VP of therapeutic discovery, will be a board observer.
“This investment in Fortuna represents Amgen’s first foray into cellular regenerative research and underscores our commitment to advancing novel neuroscience research for serious brain diseases, such as Parkinson’s,” Tagari said in a statement. “Regenerative medicine is one of the most exciting fields of health care today, and we are delighted to participate in the advancement of these innovative solutions for patients suffering from severe neurodegenerative diseases and neurotrauma.”
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