Organovo’s Bio-Printing Technology Yields Unanticipated Revenue from Pharma Partners

7/13/11Follow @bvbigelow

When I met Organovo CEO Keith Murphy last year, he was searching for commercially viable products the San Diego startup could use to support its business while advancing its long-term goal of using living cells to create kidneys and other vital organs.

More recently, a visibly excited Murphy told me he’s discovered an unmet need for Organovo’s technology among Big Pharmas, and the company’s new customer base is growing. In fact, Organovo has been generating enough revenue from a series of new partnerships that Murphy says he’s put off an expected Series A venture round.

“Back in the early part of last year we were thinking about raising capital, but have been able to avoid that because we’re getting sufficient revenue from partnership deals at this point to grow the company,” Murphy wrote in an e-mail yesterday. He told me earlier the deals had helped Organovo become nearly self-sustaining, and more are in the works. “I won’t say we’re in the black, but our burn rate has been quite low this year.”

As I explained last year, Organovo was founded four years ago on technology developed by Gabor Forgacs of the University of Missouri. Since then, Murphy says the company has raised just over $2 million from private investors to develop “bio-printing” technology that operates much like an inkjet printer. Instead of laying down ink, however, Organovo’s bio-printer lays down a pattern of cultured cells and a jello-like hydrogel that supports the cells in a 3-D structure. In this way, Organovo already has been able to grow bio-engineered blood vessels, and to lay more ambitious plans to create kidneys, livers, and other vital organs in the same way.

Such bio-engineering of organs is not a particularly new field; the basic took root decades ago. Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, for example, was the first to use similar technology to create new bladders. A key advantage of the technology is that it avoids host rejection complications by using a patient’s own cells to create new tissue. Still, the work is still highly experimental, so getting regulatory approval to graft a bio-engineered blood vessel in a living patient will take years.

In the meantime, Murphy found a burgeoning market among pharmaceutical companies by creating what he calls 3-dimensional “constructs” of diseased or dysfunctional human cells that can be used as models for testing new drugs. Creating a 3-D matrix of cells enables each cell to interact with adjoining cells, so they react to drug compounds much as they would in the body.

For example, Murphy says conventional drug testing on liver cells has been complicated because the cells flatten out in a petri dish—and as that happens … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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