Fate Therapeutics Growing Fast on “Industrialized” Stem Cell Technology

9/30/09Follow @xconomy

Want to know how fast Fate Therapeutics is growing? When I toured the La Jolla, CA, company’s labs to get an update last week, one young scientist stood up from his desk, looked me in the eye, offered a firm handshake, and said “Welcome aboard.”

I understood why a visiting journalist in a button-down shirt and jeans might be mistaken as another new employee. Fate, the stem cell company founded by a band of leading scientists from Harvard University, the University of Washington, Stanford University, and The Scripps Research Institute, has grown from 10 employees a year ago to 34 as of last week. Now the biotech startup next to Xconomy’s San Diego office is getting ready to move to a new facility nearby that triples its current capacity.

This is a sign of some important steps forward Fate has taken over the past few months. Fate isn’t commenting on whether it has plans to raise any more more venture capital, according to CEO Paul Grayson, but it is in advanced talks with several large pharmaceutical companies about partnerships. No big partners have been named yet, but if Fate can close on one or more such deals, it would build on the $25 million it has raised to support technology that induces adult cells into a stem-cell like state so they can morph into other cell types, according to chief financial officer Scott Wolchko.

Fate unveiled a business collaborative to support this technology, called Catalyst, in April with Boston-based Stemgent, which also has operations in San Diego. The companies are using genetically engineered proteins and small molecule compounds to nudge ordinary adult cells into a more valuable form known as an “induced pluripotent stem cell” that has the potential to turn into any cell type. Fate has been working to show that this method can be done consistently, at high speed, and without altering cellular DNA as other methods have, says company spokeswoman Jessica Yingling.

Fate’s technique brings together research from MIT and Whitehead Institute biologist Rudolf Jaenisch and Scripps scientist Sheng Ding. The company hopes it can be useful in a number of ways. For starters, it will seek to grow new cells in the lab dish to see what goes wrong with them, through what it calls disease modeling. These cells can also be used for drug discovery.

This technology is still very much in its early days, and plenty needs to be done before Fate can say it has really industrialized a new model for drug experimentation.

“As Rudy Jaenisch has said, you can wait for it all to be figured out and miss the boat, or you can work on it now and help shape it,” Yingling says. She adds, “We’re talking to everyone.”

There are some fascinating scientific questions being asked as Fate seeks to industrialize … Next Page »

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