San Francisco biotech has its heart in heart failure — and $92M in the bank
When a salamander’s heart suffers damage, the amphibian’s cells are able to divide and repair the organ. Tenaya Therapeutics wants to empower your heart with the same ability.
The South San Francisco-based company, founded by scientists at the Gladstone Institutes and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in October 2016, has a multi-layered approach to addressing troubles of the heart — cellular regeneration, gene therapy, and precision medicine.
“We’re all in…we have put our entire heart into heart failure,” said chief Faraz Ali in an interview with Endpoints News.
Tenaya, which is named after an alpine lake in Yosemite National Park, on Thursday raised $92 million Series B financing, led by Casdin Capital and the participation of GV, The Column Group, and additional investors. The funds will be used to take its slate of undisclosed preclinical programs into human studies in the coming years.
Over the last few decades, scientists have attempted to address heart damage by pushing cells from the outside into the heart or by using stem cells or other progenitor cells, but none of those approaches have worked, Ali noted. “Most of the approved therapies just address the symptoms of heart disease, but they don’t actually target the underlying cause.”
As part of its cellular regeneration platform, initially aimed at patients who have suffered myocardial infarction, Tenaya has engineered the conversion of resident cardiac fibroblasts — which represent about 50% of the heart — into heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) by adding certain factors.
This process, in animal models, has shown to trigger cell division and reproduction. “It sounds like science fiction. — but it actually works!” Ali said.
For its gene therapy technology, Tenaya learned from the mistakes of Celladon, which saw its bid to develop a gene therapy for heart failure go up in smoke after a spectacular late-stage setback in 2015.
“They had not spent the time to look for a novel vectors, didn’t have higher specificity, or higher transduction for the relevant cell types in the heart,” Ali said. “That’s one thing that we’re doing differently, where we have developed our own novel vectors…that have the attributes that are superior to the parental AAV vectors.”
Tenaya, and its team of 45, is not alone in its quest to develop a gene therapy geared towards the heart. Philadephia-based and Novartis-backed Renovacor, which raised $11 million in a Series A round in August, is focusing on a mutant gene that is understood to cause a rare heart condition — dilated cardiomyopathy.
In May, the head of the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad’s Cardiovascular Disease Initiative, Sekar Kathiresan, set up his own shop to tweak genes, such as APOC3 or ANGPTL3, which carry mutations that can rapidly clear triglyceride-rich lipoproteins — which raise individuals’ risk of heart attack — from circulation.
Tenaya is also strategically targeting younger patients that are genetically predisposed to heart damage, unlike others who have largely gone after the geriatric population — which has in part contributed to the failures of the past, Ali said, adding that Tenaya is also being prudent about keeping its manufacturing heft in-house, despite being years away from the clinic.
Other drugmakers have taken their respective platforms and tried to apply them across a range of therapeutic indications.
“We could take our gene therapies and our manufacturing capabilities and turn our attention to other therapeutic areas,” he added. “But instead of being the sixth company to go after hemophilia, or the twentieth institution to go after Duchenne muscular dystrophy, or to be that fiftieth CAR -T program…we think that there’s just a tremendous opportunity to focus on the heart.”
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally — although cancer is catching up. About 17.9 million people died from cardiovascular disease in 2016, representing about a third of all global deaths, estimates the WHO.
So far, Tenaya has raised $142 million, including a $50 million Series A round in 2016.