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 there tends to be changes in the cells’ patterns of gene expression, making the cultured cells biologically less like their natural counterparts. By producing a piece of human tissue that can live outside the body, Organovo is making it possible for pharmaceutical researchers to test the toxicity of an experimental compound in a way that more closely mimics the reaction within a living organism.
So far, Organovo has signed partnership agreements with two pharmaceutical companies, as well as one with a regenerative medicine company. Murphy says he’s precluded from discussing many details, but one of the pharmaceutical partnerships is with Pfizer to create 3-D constructs for drug discovery in two therapeutic areas. Organovo also is in talks with several additional partners, and Murphy says by e-mail that he expects to have more partnership deals signed before the end of this year.
“Our dance card was full at BIO for partnering meetings, and we’ve got a spectrum of big and small, U.S., Japanese, British, and Swiss pharma companies at the table,” Murphy writes. “The response to what we’re doing has really been tremendous. People can really use what we have in Oncology, Diabetes, Fibrosis, and other areas where a 3-D [tissue structure] is relevant.”
Organovo’s partners pay an upfront licensing fee to gain access to the company’s technology and also pay on an ongoing basis, Murphy says. To make the job of screening drug compounds easier, Organovo has adapted its bio-printer technology to create small clumps of cells in multi-well plates. “Where we can help out,” Murphy says, “is by making it possible to take six or seven drug candidates and running tests on human constructs, so they can look specifically at 20 genotypes.”
Organovo also has formed academic partnerships to provide its technology to scientists at the Harvard Medical School and the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, a new research center under construction in San Diego that combines scientists from the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute, The Salk Institute, The Scipps Research Institute, and the University of California, San Diego.
With a new and stable source of revenue, Organovo is expanding its laboratory space to accommodate the company’s long-range goal of developing the technology needed to create new organs from a patient’s own cells.
“One of the things that’s been good about the past six months is that the promise of our technology is holding true,” Murphy says. “The constructs we’re creating robustly build [blood vessels] with collagen, so the blood vessel grows stronger over time. The next challenge is getting to greater and greater vascularization of the construct. The emerging story is going to be, ‘Who can make thicker tissues with more blood vessels inside?’ “
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