Hunting a cure, Ex-Novartis exec Bastiano Sanna takes the reins at Cambridge diabetes startup Semma

A startup trying to develop a stem cell cure for type 1 diabetes has recruited former Magenta executive Bastiano Sanna — a guy best known for leading the development of Novartis’ cell-based medicines — to serve as the company’s new CEO.

Bastiano Sanna

Cambridge-based Semma Therapeutics is bringing Sanna in to replace its interim CEO Elizabeth Stoner. Sanna comes directly from Magenta (another startup developing stem cell tech), where he was chief operating officer. Before that, Sanna was an executive at Novartis’ cell and gene therapy division, overseeing the development of CAR-T drugs.

“Bastiano has the perfect set of skills and experiences to lead Semma through our next phase of growth as a company after a very successful Series B financing,” said Semma’s board chairman Mark Fishman in a statement. “Few leaders have such a strong cell therapy background combined with his level of strategic and business experience.”

Doug Melton

Semma’s tech is based on research by Harvard’s Doug Melton, whose lab developed a way to turn embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells in a dish. Semma is now developing an implantable, credit card-sized device containing these beta cells that would do the work of a healthy pancreas. The device, made to protect the cells from being attacked by the body’s immune system, would function as an alternative to insulin pumps and injections.

Semma isn’t the only company developing an approach like this to diabetes. There’s a company in San Diego called ViaCyte with a similar credit card-sized device being tested in patients with type 1 diabetes (Phase I/II trials).

Still, Semma has attracted considerable financial backing for its approach. Since being founded in 2014, the company has raised a total of $163 million, including a whopping $114 million Series B round last year. Its investors include MPM Capital, F-Prime Capital Partners, ARCH Venture Partners, and Novartis.

“Semma is a leader in regenerative medicine, and I couldn’t be more excited to lead this incredible team,” Sanna said. “By combining our deep understanding of stem cell biology with our cutting-edge device technology, we have the opportunity to expand the curative power of cell therapy to a range of clinical indications where cell replacement is necessary, and to improve the lives of millions of patients.”

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