The French company Treefrog Therapeutics has raised over €7M in Series A investment to develop its encapsulation technology to improve the production of stem cells for cell therapies.
Part of the Series A money will help Treefrog to automate its stem cell production process by 2021. The round will also fund the development of a stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease, which is currently in preclinical development. Since the Series A raised a higher amount than the company expected, Treefrog can also explore other disease targets for its cell therapies.
In current production methods, fragile stem cells are grown in bioreactors stirred by devices called impellers. Unfortunately, lots of the cells die from the mechanical stress caused by the impellers, creating a bottleneck for cell yields.
To circumvent this bottleneck, Treefrog grows the stem cells in a 3D clump inside tiny capsules made from alginate, a component in seaweed. The alginate capsules protect the stem cells from mechanical stresses in the bioreactor while letting nutrients pass into the capsules. Furthermore, the capsules can also protect the cells while being transported between different sites.
“We obtain tremendous yields,” the company’s CEO, Kevin Alessandri, told me. “In one week we can amplify cells by a factor of 100, whereas current methods are around a factor of ten.” The technique could also reduce costly lab work, and produce more genetically healthy stem cells.
Co-funded by the French National Research Agency, Treefrog’s most advanced cell therapy is aimed to treat Parkinson’s disease, with a first-in-human trial anticipated for 2024. This would join other efforts to develop stem cell therapies for the neurodegenerative disease following the first clinical trial testing a stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s, which started in Japan last year.
“Other clinical trials are about to start worldwide,” said Alessandri. “We have a tight time window to jump on the train.”
The company’s fundraising benefited from the current boom in the field of stem cell therapy. “There is clearly an appetite for our technology both from investors and pharma due to the manufacturing bottleneck in stem cell therapy,” Alessandri said. Other companies are also aiming to exploit this gap in the market such as the UK biotech Atelerix, which aims to transport cells safely between sites without needing any expensive cold storage.
A lot of the investor interest stems from the potential of stem cell therapies to treat diseases that have few effective treatments at present, such as diabetes and dementia. The stem cell treatment Alofisel, developed by the Belgian biotech TiGenix, was the first donor-based stem cell therapy to be approved in Europe last year for the treatment of symptoms in the incurable condition Crohn’s disease. “Cell therapy is a medical revolution,” Alessandri said. “Greater applications are yet to come.”
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