Semma Therapeutics

CEO: Robert Millman
Based: Cambridge, MA
Founded: 2014
Company website

The scoop: Semma aims to create a beta cell device implant for Type 1 diabetes patients that could provide them with 5 to 7 years of insulin independence. The notion of beta cell replacement therapy is not a new one. The breakthrough that led to the creation of Semma was the ability to generate sufficient and well-functioning human pancreatic beta cells from undifferentiated pluripotent stem cells.

That solves the problem of how to produce sufficient, functioning beta cells for such a device. But now the startup is working on how to effectively encapsulate these cells in a device that will both protect them from attack by the body's immune system, while enabling them to work effectively in the body.

What makes Semma Therapeutics Fierce: The startup expects that it is a few years from having an implant that's ready for clinical testing. In fact, a recent $44 million Series A round is slated to get it into human proof-of-concept testing. MPM Capital led the round with participation from Fidelity Biosciences, Arch Venture Partners and Medtronic ($MDT). Novartis ($NVS) also invested and became a partner, although no specifics about the deal have been disclosed.

"Semma had the ability to partner with almost any pharma that we wanted," said Semma CEO Robert Millman in an interview with FierceMedicalDevices. "We look at Novartis as being a very good partner. Other companies may have more at-risk in diabetes, but Novartis has made a commitment to cell and gene therapy from research through development." Millman expects Semma will be able to tap into some of Novartis' resources in that area.

On Medtronic's participation, he noted, "They've got diabetic pumps and I think they understand that if cell therapy ends up hoping what it will be--a multi-billion device industry disappears."

Right now the top priority is to advance the encapsulation device. The company is following a number of routes simultaneously--both internal and external--to sort out an appropriate device. About one-third of the Series A round is expected to go toward developing and/or acquiring an appropriate implant device.

Courtesy of Semma

"A retrievable device that holds the cells in a confined location--that's something the FDA would like to see," said Millman. He cited one of the most advanced devices, which requires a daily injection of oxygen, as that developed by Israeli startup Beta-O2, but he noted that the type of beta cells weren't of the same quality that Semma can produce.

Recently, Semma made its first strategic move on this front when it acquired Cytosolv, a Rhode Island drug delivery technology company that focuses on a variety of cell types to various implant sites in the body. The founders of Cytosolv, Chris Thanos and Moses Goddard, will become VP of Delivery and CMO at Semma, respectively.

Millman expects that once Semma makes it to human proof-of-concept that it will be able to nab a partner or gain backing from the likes of non-profits such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) or the Helmsley Charitable Foundation, both of which are heavily involved in backing Type I diabetes research. After that, he expects a Series B round could fund an enlargement of its clinical program.

"We will use science to drive what we want, not an exit strategy. I think the science will be rapidly accelerated into the clinic by a strategic partner," Semma's Millman said. "That should be sufficient to get into and initiate clinical studies. At some point, we are hoping to be able to attract philanthropic and foundational support, particularly in the clinic. … We hope to go to one of those sources before we go back to VCs for a B round for enlargement of the clinical program."

What to look for: Up next, Semma should divulge details on its encapsulation device as it moves forward. These could take the form of further strategic deals and/or breakthroughs on internal development. Once it has a viable option or two on the device front--watch for early clinical data. You won't be alone. If Semma is successful in advancing the long-beloved notion of a beta cell implant, the whole world will be watching.

-- Stacy Lawrence (email | Twitter)

For more:
MIT, Harvard professors discuss research en route to artificial pancreas
Medtronic, Novartis back implantable beta cell diabetes device in $44M Series A, partnership
Bioartificial adrenal device readies to follow bioartificial pancreas into the clinic
San Diego company testing artificial pancreas made from stem cells
Study shows artificial pancreas improves treatment for Type 1 diabetes
Bioartificial pancreas to eliminate insulin need in Type 1 diabetes trial
Artificial pancreas beats out insulin pump in Type 1 diabetes study

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Semma Therapeutics