Semma scoops $114M to trial curative diabetes cell therapy

Douglas Melton, Ph.D., Semma founder. (Image: Harvard University)

Semma Therapeutics has raised $114 million to take a potentially-curative Type 1 diabetes cell therapy through clinical proof of concept. The round positions Semma to start learning whether its insulin-producing cells can control blood sugar levels in diabetics. 

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Semma set up shop in 2014 to capitalize on a breakthrough that enabled the production of pancreatic beta cells from undifferentiated pluripotent stem cells. Semma broke cover the following year when it unveiled a $44 million series A and a partnership with Novartis, which the startup picked over more diabetes-focused businesses because of its cell therapy chops. 

Now, new investors Eight Roads Ventures and Cowen Healthcare Investments have co-led a round that will enable Semma to test whether its preclinical toil will translate into early clinical success. The series B is big enough to take Semma’s lead program through clinical proof of concept with enough left over to look into other regenerative medicine opportunities.

Semma is advancing toward the clinic on the back of research into how to administer beta cells so they deliver insulin to the body without being turfed out by the immune system. 

That challenge has been a focal point of research over the past two years at Semma, which began life with an understanding of how to produce beta cells, at least at lab scale, but without a device in which to encapsulate them.

“Semma’s scientists have very effectively dedicated themselves to systems that reliably generate cells indistinguishable from human pancreatic beta cells and to the invention of novel devices that are immunologically protective and surgically practical,” Douglas Melton, Ph.D., Semma founder and co-author of the beta cell paper that triggered its creation, said in a statement.

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The startup is now nearing the point at which it has all the pieces in place to start testing the cells and device in humans. And, given the candidate’s potential to upend the Type 1 drug and medical device markets, it has found financial, strategic and philanthropic investors willing to bankroll the studies.

On the strategic front, Novartis and Medtronic—which could see some of its business disappear if the cell therapy succeeds—both returned for the series B. The businesses were joined by venture philanthropy shop JDRF T1D Fund and a clutch of new and existing financial investors, including  MPM Capital, F-Prime Capital Partners, ARCH Venture Partners and ORI Healthcare Fund.