Oxford University spinoff OxStem gains record funding, big names

Christ Church College, Oxford
(Iustin Ouatu, Flickr)

OxStem has closed a £16.9 million ($24.4 million) fundraising round to design stem cell drugs that treat age-related diseases, with Dr. J. Craig Venter, Bob Duggan and Dr. Mahkam Zanganeh all backing the startup.

The £16.9 million raise--the highest ever for a U.K. academic spinout--will go toward developing small-molecule drugs that can activate repair mechanisms that already exist within the body. The biotech was first founded back in 2014.

Building on decades of experience in medicinal chemistry, OxStem will design drugs that can program resident stem and stemlike cells in situ to treat currently untreatable age-related conditions. This follows in line with other biotechs looking to “cure old age."

Just last month, U.S. biotechs Ascentage Pharma and Unity Biotechnology signed a research pact to help reverse aging, using preclinical data focusing on senescent cells.

Google ($GOOG) is also attempting to make a splash in the expanded life-span field with its upstart Calico, although this is very early-stage and the tech giant is a little thin on the details. Others are looking to older meds that may contain previously unknown qualities--the top among which is the off-patent Type 2 diabetes drug metformin.

Studies are planned from U.S. academic and government centers in the next year to see if the drug can delay or prevent some of the most devastating diseases of advanced age, from heart ailments to cognitive decline to cancer.

OxStem is focusing on stem cell science, and in essence aims to switch on the body’s natural regeneration and repair systems. Current stem cell treatments mostly focus on injection of cells into the body and are available only in hospitals with access to the specialist laboratory facilities needed to harvest, isolate and multiply stem cells.

The biotech said it however plans to reprogram stem and stemlike progenitor cells that already exist in the body with no need for cell transplantation procedures.

This will be the sixth spinout for OxStem co-founder Professor Steve Davies from Oxford’s Department of Chemistry. Co-founders Professor Dame Kay Davies and Professor Angela Russell are also serial entrepreneurs with a number of drug-development spinouts to their names.

Davies said in a release: “We will identify small molecule drug candidates, which can programme adult stem and stem-like cells to repair and replace tissues affected by disease or injury. We are tackling many of the worst conditions associated with ageing: dementia, heart failure, cancer and macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in the developed world.”

The funding will be used primarily for the development of preclinical small molecule drug candidates. “By developing drugs for this purpose we have the potential to revolutionise healthcare,” said OxStem Chairman and CEO Dr. Michael Stein in the release. “Our talented team is now going to be supported by a highly sophisticated investor base.”

Dr. Stein continued: “Our company is extremely fortunate to have the strategic backing of Human Longevity CEO Dr. J. Craig Venter, along with the team of Bob Duggan and Dr. Mahkam Zanganeh [the former CEO and chairman and COO respectively] of Pharmacyclics. Our other investors include a number of U.K. and international individuals as well as Oxford Sciences Innovation.”

The company’s scientific advisory board, which is chaired by Davies, will also include Dr. Venter.

OxStem is also set to fund the development of a series of daughter companies--each with a focus on a different large unmet therapeutic need.

The first of these companies is OxStem Oncology, which will investigate the potential for intervening in therapy-resistant cancers. The team will focus initially on acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes with a view to expanding to other conditions over time.

Plans are “well advanced,” according to the company, for the subsequent launch of OxStem Cardio, OxStem Neuro and OxStem Ocular to apply the stem cell technology to developing therapies for cardiac failure, neurodegenerative diseases, and macular degeneration.

- read the release (PDF)

Image from Iustin Ouatu.