Pervasis Therapeutics, a Cambridge, MA-based cell therapy company, has hired a veteran businessman from Genzyme as its first CEO. Frederic Chereau, a former vice president and general manager of the cardiovascular business unit of Genzyme, takes over a company that aims to create a cell-based product that will help stop excessive inflammation and promote healing.
Pervasis is associated with some big name inventors, including MIT Institute professor Robert Langer, and has gotten backing from Polaris Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures, and Highland Capital Partners. Chereau, 42, said he decided to take on this challenge partly because he got a glimpse of Pervasis’ technology while it was being manufactured under contract at Genzyme, and he’s seen clinical trial data that suggest the product will improve the treatment of patients undergoing kidney dialysis. Chereau also spent a few months of soul-searching, and decided he wanted to push himself to try to do something big with a startup.
“My father once said he wished he had started a company and never did because of good reasons,” Chereau says. “You can always find good reasons not to take on this kind of risk. But if I waited five years, maybe I wouldn’t have the energy or the passion to do this.”
Chereau certainly sounded fired up in our conversation. His main goal is to further develop Pervasis’ product, which it calls Vascugel, which consists of a sponge-like material seeded with cells that line blood vessels. When the material is placed against an injured blood vessel, the cells produce certain proteins that seep through the blood vessel wall, where they can tamp down inflammation and scarring. The cells aren’t personalized to the patient, but rather are from a standard off-the-shelf line of cells.
The initial application that Pervasis is targeting with the technology is treating the blood vessels of kidney dialysis patients. These patients typically get hooked up to dialysis machines to have their blood filtered every other day, and it takes rather large needles to handle the stream of blood to and from the machine, Chereau says. To prepare an access point for those needles, surgeons create a sort of bubble below the skin in the upper arm by joining and artery and vein together directly (called a fistula) or with a plastic tube (called a graft). Eventually, though, inflammation and scarring slow the flow of blood through the site of the surgery, and a new bubble needs to get formed further up the arm. This can’t go on forever: As Chereau points out. “You only have two arms.”
Vascugel, applied to the blood vessel at the time the fistula or graft is created, could promote natural healing, preventing the excess inflammation and scarring, Chereau says. About 300,000 patients in the U.S. are on kidney dialysis, so there’s potentially a large initial market for this sort of therapy that might promote healing around those injection sites.
Data of the Vascugel technique from a mid-stage clinical trial is available internally at the company, although it isn’t being presented publicly until the American Society of Nephrology meeting in Philadelphia November 4 to 9. So far, about 65 patients have been entered into the safety database, and the product doesn’t appear to provoke patients’ immune systems to reject the cells as foreign invaders, Chereau says. The data are encouraging enough that his primary goal for the next year is to begin a pivotal study of Vascugel before the end of June, he says.
Pervasis has its sights on other applications of this cell-therapy approach as well. It wants to test the method against a disease of scarring and inflammation in leg arteries—peripheral artery disease—as well as carotid artery disease. That puts Chereau into a very competitive space with companies trying all sorts of techniques to reduce arterial inflammation. “Everybody is trying to solve vascular issues, but we have a very promising technology,” he says.
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