Fate Therapeutics Adds Scientific Muscle, Advancing Stem Cell Technology into First Clinical Trial

Xconomy San Diego — 

Fate Therapeutics has wowed people with its big plans to make drugs that activate adult stem cells in the body to treat diseases and regenerate tissues. And now the biotech startup has brought on new scientific talent to help put its first treatment to the test in clinical trials.

Fate said yesterday it has recruited Ken Batchelor, a former senior research executive at drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), to be its chief scientific officer. Batchelor is said to be one of the scientists who invented the urology drug dutasteride (Avodart), a treatment that shrinks oversized prostates and generated $547.9 million in 2008 revenue for London-based Glaxo. Batchelor ushered 11 drugs from target identification to mid-stage clinical trials before he left the company in 2007. Fate also recently hired Dan Shoemaker, previously chief scientific officer at biotech firm ICx Biosystems in La Jolla, to be its chief technology officer.

Fate has big plans to keep its new executives busy. The company— founded by top stem cell scientists at Harvard University, The Scripps Research Institute, the University of Washington, Stanford University, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research—plans to begin its first clinical trial in the next several weeks involving patients with blood cancer or other disorders who are getting stem cell transplants.

“The combination of [Batchelor and Shoemaker] is very powerful and it really does propel Fate and take it to its next stage of development,” says Scott Wolchko, Fate’s chief financial officer. The biotech notes it also recently added to its list of scientific founders Rudolf Jaenisch, a founding researcher of the Whitehead Institute, who is a pioneer in the study of reprogramming adult cells to a stem cell-like state.

That next stage of development includes the clinical trial, in which one of Fate’s chemical drugs will be used to help transplanted stem cells from donated umbilical cord blood take root in the body and begin to produce new blood cells and immune cells, Wolchko explains.

The treatment would address a major need among thousands of patients with who need stem cell transplants. Cord blood—taken from umbilical cords and placentas after babies are born—could offer a more readily available source of stem cells for transplants than sources such as bone marrow and donated blood, in part because cord blood transplants don’t need to match a recipient’s tissue type as closely as bone marrow and donor blood transplants do, explains Jessica Yingling, a spokeswoman for Fate. But cord blood stem cells can take longer to establish in recipients’ bodies than those from the other sources, leaving patients’ immune systems vulnerable. Fate’s drug is intended to be added to the cord blood before it is transplanted in patients and make the stem cells better equipped to take root more quickly and effectively.

The firm’s trial will involve 12 patients and is intended to first show the firm whether its drugs are safe, Wolchko says, and the results may also provide data on how effective the drugs are. The trial is expected to wrap up early next year.

Wolchko says that the firm’s planned clinical trial is to his knowledge the first that will test the use of chemical drugs to make stem cells into more specialized cells. Still, one of Fate’s big ideas is to develop drugs that seek out adult stem cells in the body and induce them to become specialized cells to regenerate tissue or treat diseases. Bob last year captured the whole story about how this exciting science—which doesn’t rely on controversial use of stem cells from embryos—spurred venture capitalists Amir Nashat of Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, MA, and Alex Rives of ARCH Venture Partners to raise initial financing and rally leading scientists in the field to launch Fate.