UR startup acquired by biotech firm

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Oscine Corp., a University of Rochester startup, has been acquired by Sana Biotechnology. The Seattle company develops cell-based therapies for neurological disorders.

Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Steve Goldman M.D., president and scientific founder of Oscine, will join Sana as senior vice president and head of central nervous system therapy. He will oversee Sana’s efforts related to Oscine technologies and the company’s strategy in the central nervous system realm. A professor of neurology and neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Goldman will remain on faculty.

Astrocytes, star-shaped glia in red, are abundant in the human brain. Young oligodendrocytes, seen here in green, help insulate nerve cell axons in the brain. (Photo credit: Jonathan Cohen/NIH)

For decades, Goldman has been working to understand the molecular function and biology of glial support cells or glial progenitor cells in the central nervous system. These cells differentiate into vital support cells of the central nervous system such as oligodendrocytes and astrocytes. The disappearance or malfunction of these cells lies at the root of many neurodegenerative and myelin disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Huntington’s disease.

Replacing malfunctioning cells with healthy ones can slow, and in some cases, reverse disease progression in animal models of these diseases, Goldman’s lab has demonstrated.

This potential for treatment plays into Sana’s focus on creating and delivering engineered cells as medicines for patients. The company is backed by $700 million in investment.

“After three decades of research into how to repair the cellular structure of the diseased brain, it is heartening to know that Sana plans to urgently drive these therapies to the clinic to explore their potential benefit for the many patients and their families stricken with these largely incurable diseases,” Goldman says. 

Sana has acquired the exclusive licenses for Oscine’s technology portfolio as well as the equity stake held by UR. The university and Goldman may continue to receive significant licensing, milestone and royalty payments from Sana in the future, URMC officials say.

Oscine is no stranger to Sana. Last year, the biotech company invested in Oscine’s research into neurological disorders, in what remains UR’s largest-ever commercial spinoff, university officials say.

“The University of Rochester has been working closely with Dr. Goldman’s lab and the Oscine team from its inception,” says Scott Catlin, director of UR Ventures, the university’s technology transfer office. “We are thrilled with the company’s impressive progress and its acquisition by Sana and look forward to continue supporting the commercialization of Dr. Goldman’s technologies.”

Sana’s 2019 investment in Oscine was aimed at bringing cell-based therapies to the clinic. The research was conducted at URMC and supported 21 full-time staffers with researchers here and in Seattle. The cell manufacturing for clinical delivery used protocols developed in Rochester.

The market for cell-based therapies continues to grow. An October report by Allied Market Research expects the segment to grow more than 25 percent in seven years to $48.1 billion globally. Stem-cell therapies are expected to grow the fastest. In 2019, the total global market was estimated at $7.75 billion.

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped many see the potential of precision medicine, which includes cell therapies. Efforts to create a vaccine required the examination of the virus’ genetic profile.

For Sana, acquiring Oscine takes it a step forward in its vision to modify genes and use cells as medicines to change the outcome of diseases. Since its inception, it has wanted to bring together bright minds—like URMC’s Goldman—and technologies to meet its goals.

“We are excited about the potential of the glial progenitor cell program Oscine has been developing to help patients with a number of different diseases of the brain,” says Steve Harr, president and CEO, calling Goldman a world-leading scientist and clinician.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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