Provasculon, a Biogen-backed Startup, Testing Regenerative Medicine on Hearts

Xconomy Boston — 

Provasculon is tackling one of the bigger ideas in regenerative medicine—how to stimulate growth of new blood vessels after they’ve been damaged by a heart attack. The Cambridge, MA-based startup hasn’t drawn a lot of attention since it was unveiled in March, but since it’s the second company that Biogen Idec has decided to bet on with its incubator, I figured it was worth a closer look around their offices at 14 Cambridge Center.

The concept behind Provasculon originates from work done by cardiologist Richard Lee at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and scientist Vincent Segers, who has since left the academic lab to carry the work further along at the startup. Lee and Segers found in rat studies that a novel protein was able to stimulate a certain type of stem cells (better known to scientists as endothelial progenitor cells) to migrate to damaged heart tissue, promote growth of new blood vessels, and ultimately help the heart pump better after a heart attack.

The trick here is that Provasculon is trying to make a genetically engineered form of the key protein, SDF-1, that is able to avoid certain enzymes in the body that would like to chop the protein up and render it useless as a drug, says Anthony Sandrasagra, the company’s founding chief scientific officer. The company thinks it has a mutant version of the protein that’s up to the task, and it has got $6 million in combined investment from Biogen and Partners Healthcare (an umbrella medical group that includes Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s) to find out if it’s right. The money should last the next two years, and pave the way for clinical trials, Sandrasagra says.

Early-stage cardiovascular research like this isn’t Biogen’s strong suit, so that’s one reason to set it up as part of the incubator, Biogen spokeswoman Naomi Aoki says. “The idea with the incubator is to take interesting ideas, especially in areas where we don’t have internal strengths, and in a two to three year period see if it can be moved in the clinic,” Aoki says. “They could be ideas that end up in our pipeline.”

If Biogen likes what it sees after the first couple years of tests, it has the first option to acquire the company for its own drug development pipeline, Aoki says. If not, Provasculon can try to find another partner (although I imagine the first question anybody’s likely to ask is why Biogen decided to pass.)

The earlier experiments by Lee and Segers used a mix of self-assembling peptides, a delivery system that isn’t practical for a real-world drug. So part of Provasculon’s challenge is to make a version of SDF-1 that can be given in a convenient way, Sandrasagra says.

“We’re trying to make a better, more stable SDF-1 and demonstrate the advantage of that,” he says.

Provasculon isn’t the only company pursuing this line of research. Sunrise, FL-based Bioheart (NASDAQ: BHRT) reported at a pair of medical meetings in July that stem cells modified to produce SDF-1 helped improve heart function in rats. Cambridge,MA-based Genzyme (NASDAQ: GENZ) also has run gene therapy experiments that look at whether it can promote growth of new blood vessels.

Provasculon has its eyes on not just heart attack patients, but those with peripheral artery disease and diabetics with slow-healing wounds. Given how much risk there is in biotech, it’s always good to have a Plan B and C, even when you’re just getting started.