Twist of Fate—How A Band of VCs Recruited a Scientific Dream Team to Control Our Cells’ Destinies

4/11/08Follow @bbuderi

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a hematologist and oncologist who co-directs the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and heads the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (among a long list of other lofty titles and honors). Scadden, he says, was extremely thoughtful and “had a very comprehensive view” of not just the scientific issues but public policy matters as well. “I was just so impressed by him,” Nashat says. So a few months later he e-mailed Scadden and asked whether they could get together for dinner.

They met that fall at a French restaurant very near Massachusetts General Hospital. It was a, um, fateful meeting, because it turned out that Scadden had been thinking much along the same lines as Nashat. He worked with blood stem cells, and had been considering that if he could control their behavior, he might be able to affect the outcome of cancer and AIDS. Not only that, Scadden says, “I had been thinking about it as something that might be a broader principle that could be applied to other adult stem cell populations resident in other tissues.” He had shared at least some of these ideas with other venture capitalists, but, he says, “there wasn’t really traction.”

Until, that is, the dinner with Nashat. As Nashat describes it, Scadden detailed some of his previous commercial ideas and they began talking about why nothing had come of them. It was then that they realized the effort had to be much bigger than any one person or team. “We reviewed those ideas and then thought of a new way to do it, which was to bring in everybody, bring in the best,” says Nashat.

This idea of a big collaboration would prove to be one of the cornerstones of Fate. But it didn’t get put into action right away. Nashat says it was some time later that he asked Scadden who else they should pull in, and Scadden brought up the name of Leonard Zon, director of the Stem Cell Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a prominent researcher in the fields of stem cell biology and cancer genetics.

Not only did Scadden speak very highly of Zon, but so did Polaris partner Alan Crane. Nashat saw this as an important validation and set out to bring Zon into the fold. Now, here the story might provide a case study of the kind of walls that can arbitrarily exist between colleagues, and how often it takes somebody from the outside to bring them down. Because it turns out that Scadden and Zon already met almost weekly in the course of their jobs, but had never really talked about how their work might fit together. Now the two discovered, says Scadden, that they were actually working in parallel on some of these cell-modulation efforts. Zon also shared Scadden’s excitement about the idea of forming a commercial venture around the work. And thus, the East Coast component of Fate was born.

Meanwhile, on the other coast, a strangely similar string of events was unwinding. Since the fall of 2005, even before Nashat became engrossed in stem cell science, Alex Rives had been sniffing around the scene. Armed with an undergraduate degree in biology from Yale, a strong background as an entrepreneur, and the blessing of Arch co-founder and director Bob Nelsen, he had also been looking for a new approach in stem cells—something focused on developing drugs that modulate adult stem cells in the body rather than cell therapies in which doctors would inject cells into the body.

Rives approached Randall Moon, director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Washington, to explain his idea. Moon was an expert in the Wnt (pronounced wint) pathway, one of the two dominant signaling pathways that regulate stem cells. Moon had already been thinking about the commercial ramifications of the work, and put Rives in touch with two of his collaborators—renowned Stanford University biologist Philip Beachy, and Sheng Ding, a young rising-star researcher at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

If you put this West Coast group together with the East Coast team, you had a comprehensive picture of the … Next Page »

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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