A New Attack On Complex Diseases
By Jeffrey Krasner, Globe Staff, 3/15/2004
Three of the best-known scientists in the field of tissue engineering have teamed up with two leading life-science venture capital firms to launch a company that plans to combine elements of tissue engineering and cell-based therapy with the precision of medical devices to attack a variety of human diseases.
Pervasis Therapeutics Inc. recently raised $500,000 in seed financing from Polaris Venture Partners of Waltham and Flagship Ventures of Cambridge and is working to secure a larger round of financing that could close in a few weeks.
The company is the latest to emerge from the laboratory of MIT scientist Robert Langer, whose research and patents have played a role at Alkermes Inc., Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., both of Cambridge, MicroChips Inc. of Bedford, and many other companies.
Working with Langer is Dr. Joseph P. Vacanti, a famed transplant surgeon and tissue engineering pioneer at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Dr. Elazer R. Edelman, a former Langer protg who is director of the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center.
The founders are reluctant to describe Pervasis's mission in detail while the company is such an early-stage start-up — it actually operates out of Flagship's offices in Cambridge. But they hint at a combination of tissue engineering and medical device techniques that could help treat complex diseases. One target is diseases that affect endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels.
"We're addressing diseases that are orders of magnitude more complex than what's been done before," said Anupam Dalal, a principal at Flagship Ventures who is a cardiovascular surgeon and serves as acting chief medical officer of Pervasis. "It's not a single target or pathogen. The syndromes we're attacking are not as trivial or one-dimensional as bacterial pneumonia."
Edelman describes Pervasis's work by comparing it to one of the most successful new medical devices on the market, the drug-eluting stent. For decades, cardiologists have used the collapsible metal mesh tubes to hold open arteries after they have been cleared of plaque blockages using angioplasty. But doctors found that many patients developed new blockages in these arteries due to irritation from the stents themselves, which leads to the growth of scar tissue, called restenosis.
The latest generation of stents is coated with drugs that gradually wash into the bloodstream and inhibit the growth of scar tissue, thereby keeping the blood vessels unobstructed. So the new stents aren't just mechanisms to prop open the blood vessels — they're also drug-delivery devices.
Edelman said drug-coated stents are amazing devices that have had tremendous impact on a specific disease. But many other diseases are far more complex and their biology or geometry precludes use of these devices. Pervasis is seeking to address more complex disease paths where it's impossible to know exactly when the disease started and whether a single drug will provide adequate treatment.
Edelman describes the treatments that Pervasis hopes to develop as an adaptive system that will respond to the actual process of healing.
"We're looking at an approach that does far more than just overwhelm an injury site with a chemical," he said. "Our systems sense what's going on and regulate what they secrete. We are taking advantage of the natural healing mechanism of the body. Cells are designed to adapt to their environment. They sense what is happening and in a dynamic fashion secrete the full range of factors needed to repair injury. For that reason we have created a cell-based therapy."
The creation of Pervasis shows how MIT's scientific community, with its close ties to venture capital and industry, manages to spin off cutting-edge technology into promising start-ups.
Two years ago, Sycamore Networks Inc. founder Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande gave MIT $20 million to provide seed money to faculty members with promising technology. When the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation was looking for ideas to fund, faculty director Charles Cooney went immediately to Langer. Concepts Langer was developing with Edelman seemed perfect for funding, Cooney said.
"We're looking for bold ventures," said Cooney. "We're not looking to just make small incremental technological changes. Bob's idea was transformational. It's at the interface of devices and materials and tissue engineering."
Langer's start-up, provisionally known as ELV Inc. (for the founders, Edelman, Langer, and Vacanti), was awarded $250,000 in Deshpande's first round of grants in October 2002.
The following spring, Deshpande held its first IdeaStream, a daylong meeting at which scientists presented their ideas and business plans to venture capitalists. Following Langer's presentation, he was approached by Noubar B. Afeyan, chief executive of Flagship Ventures, and Terry McGuire, managing general partner of Polaris Ventures. They both wanted to invest in the venture.
Today, McGuire is on the board of Pervasis, as is Edwin M. Kania Jr., chairman of Flagship. Amir H. Nashat, a principal at Polaris who completed his doctorate in chemical engineering at Langer's lab — and played water polo at the MIT Alumni pool with Edelman — is president of the venture.
Kania said Pervasis is in late stages of completing a series A venture round. Another challenge for the start-up is negotiating rights to some of the patents Langer, Vacanti, and other founders have developed, but which have been assigned to other firms.
Jeffrey Krasner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2004 Globe Newspaper Company