The Greater Boston Diabetes Cluster
More than one of our readers has noted recently that the Boston area is home to a mighty cluster of companies dedicated to providing new treatments and devices for diabetics. So, after a bit of investigation, we’ve compiled a list of local firms that represent some of the most promising advances in diabetes care.
Of course, New England is home to one of the largest life sciences sectors in the country—and we’ve got significant numbers of companies focused on improving the lives of people with cancer, cardiovascular disease, and many other serious ailments. “In all facets of healthcare we have great local talent,” says Michael Greeley, managing general partner of Boston venture firm Flybridge Capital Partners. “It just happens that diabetes is a huge problem that these multiple firms, through therapeutic or devices or health IT, all address.”
A huge problem indeed: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there were 23.7 million Americans with diabetes in 2007 and growing. And the increase in patients has increased demand for new ways to treat, diagnose and monitor various forms of the disease—including Type 1 diabetes, in which the pancreas stops producing insulin, and Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, in which the body’s tissues fail to respond normally to insulin.
Below are nearly a dozen firms in Boston and environs dedicated to developing new drugs, medical devices, or diagnostics to combat diabetes. (As always, please leave a comment if you think we’ve missed a company or two that should be on the list.)
DEVICES AND DIAGNOSTICS
AgaMatrix makes blood-glucose meters designed to provide ultra-sensitive readings, using digital signaling algorithms that measure variables such as altitude that can cause readings to be inaccurate. The company was co-founded by former MIT graduate student Sonny Vu, who now serves as chairman of the board.
GI Dynamics is developing a single device that could help people with Type 2 diabetes lower their blood sugar while helping them lose weight. The startup aims to gain regulatory clearance to sell its so-called EndoBarrier, which is a sleeve that lines a section of the small intestine, as a treatment for both Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Luke wrote a great post about some of the firm’s latest progress in clinical trials.
Insulet (NASDAQ:PODD) to set out to solve another problem in diabetes care—convenient and discreet insulin delivery. The company’s OmniPod system consists of an insulin-carrying device that adheres to the skin under a patient’s shirt; patients control insulin delivery with a handheld device.
MicroCHIPS is working on what could be a breakthrough in managing diabetes, a tiny implant that can monitor blood sugar continuously and alert patients when levels fall outside of set limits. The glucose sensor uses reservoir-array technology developed at MIT by CEO John Santini and company co-founders and MIT professors Michael Cima and Bob Langer.
CombinatoRx (NASDAQ:CRXX) has several drugs in its pipeline based on its platform that combines different drug molecules to form new treatments for different ailments. Indeed, the company’s drug for Type 2 diabetes, now in mid-stage clinical trials, is a combination of an anti-cholesterol drug and a painkilling molecule.
Elixir is in the late stages of developing a combination drug for Type 2 diabetes. The startup’s lead diabetes drug, which is a combination of metformin and mitiglinide, is intended to provide both reduce blood sugar levels and provide boosts in insulin production after meals. We wrote more about the latest clinical trial of the drug, which Elixir plans to market under the name Metgluna, late last year.
It’s early days for Escoublac, a startup housed in big biotech Biogen Idec’s incubator near its headquarters in Cambridge, but its research could lead to new drugs for diabetes. Escoublac has licensed technology based of the discovery of Columbia University geneticist Gerard Karsenty that a protein produced in bones can protect insulin as well as insulin-making cells in the pancreas.
Type 2 diabetes is just one of the diseases of aging that Cambridge, MA-based Sirtris aims to treat with its drugs, which activate enzymes called sirtuins that are believed slow the aging process and aid metabolism. As I noted last week, this homegrown biotech firm’s story is known widely, and London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline obviously took a shine to Sirtris, paying $720 million for the company last year.
SmartCells is tackling the problem diabetics face in keeping their blood sugar levels steady. The firm’s drug incorporates a polymer molecule that releases insulin only when blood glucose rises to a certain concentration; Todd Zion, CEO and co-founder of the startup, began developing the polymer technology while in graduate school at MIT.
Syndexa is also in the very early stages of researching drugs that target protein functions that could provide treatments for Type 2 diabetes or other metabolic disorders. The startup, which announced a $15 million second round of financing last May, has licensed technology from researchers such as Harvard School of Public Health scientist Gokhan Hotamisligil, whose research focuses on how sugars and fats are metabolized.
ToleRx is trying to succeed where several other biotech firms have failed: in commercializing drugs that teach the immune system how to tolerate molecules that it would otherwise attack. This is the idea behind the firm’s lead antibody drug for Type 1 diabetes, a disease in which the immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The drug, for which ToleRx inked a $760 million collaboration deal with Glaxo, is in late-stage clinical trials.