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New Biotech Viscient Partners with Organovo on Fatty Liver Disease

Xconomy San Diego — 

It struck me as a little perplexing when Organovo (NASDAQ: ONVO) announced in April that CEO Keith Murphy was departing to pursue “entrepreneurial opportunities.”

The San Diego company, founded a decade ago on 3D bio-printing technology developed by the University of Missouri’s Gabor Forgacs, appeared to be gaining momentum on multiple fronts. Organovo had built a thriving business under Murphy as a contract research organization, enabling big pharmaceutical companies to screen on pea-sized samples of 3D-printed liver cells. In a related initiative, Organovo began moving to develop larger “patches” of 3D-printed human liver tissue for potential use in transplantation in patients with fatal liver disease.

The company also was developing separate lines of business in bio-printing 3D samples of kidney cells for screening pre-clinical drug candidate on living human kidney tissue, as well as 3D-printed skin tissue for evaluating cosmetic products.

So why leave a good thing?

As it turns out, Murphy said he saw an opportunity to develop new drugs for treating non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and other types of fatty liver disease by forming a new biotech with Jeffrey Miner, a scientific director at San Diego’s Ardea Biosciences and AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN), after the pharmaceutical giant acquired Ardea for over $1.2 billion in 2012.

“My whole plan was always to be a serial entrepreneur,” Murphy said.

Keith Murphy

The new biotech, San Diego-based Viscient Biosciences, is announcing today that it plans to collaborate with Organovo to help establish a disease model for fatty liver disease in bio-printed 3D liver samples. Understanding the progression of fatty liver disease and the development of new drugs was previously constrained by a lack of advanced systems that could accurately mimic human liver biology.

“Viscient’s plan goes arm and arm with Organovo,” Murphy said. “Viscient is going to be one of Organovo’s pharma customers.”

In a statement from Organovo, CEO Taylor Crouch explains, “Our 3D disease models have the unique capability to demonstrate drug mechanisms of action and efficacy in a setting that closely mimics human livers…Our aim is to establish a custom platform that will support high-value drug profiling, and ultimately move our collaboration into a steady-state relationship.”

According to Organovo, an estimated 100 million adults in the U.S. are afflicted with non-alcoholic fatty liver diease (NAFLD), while as many as 20 million more Americans are projected to have NASH. Left unchecked, these diseases can progress to cirrhosis and cancer, with NASH being the second leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.

Murphy said that Viscient, which was incorporated in August, has three employees (including Murphy and Miner), and has raised about $1.5 million in seed funding from Murphy and other angel investors. In response to a query from Xconomy, Murphy added that he resigned from Organovo’s board in August after lawyers involved in vetting the collaboration voiced some misgivings on Murphy’s role as Viscient CEO and chairman of Organovo’s board.