In what could be a major step toward a cure for type 1 diabetes, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a global biotechnology company based in Boston, recently announced that it is spending nearly one billion dollars (in cash) to acquire a company that has done pioneering work on manufacturing and employing insulin-making stem cells as a potential diabetes therapy.
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The company Vertex is buying is Semma Therapeutics, which was founded by Harvard University scientist Douglas Melton, MD, a specialist in developing therapies for people with diabetes who need to use insulin. So far, Semma has shown that it’s possible to produce in the laboratory large amounts of human pancreatic cells that both restore insulin secretion and achieve normal blood glucose levels. Semma has also found a way to protect those cells from the body’s immune system, which makes it unnecessary for the recipient of the cell transplants to undergo continuing immunosuppressive therapy.
Although Semma’s research has been impressive, it’s still in its early stages, and the process has taken longer than originally hoped. The technology has been tested only on pigs and primates and has yet to be tested in a clinical trial, and the expectation is that merging with Vertex will enable Semma to accelerate the research. According to Semma’s president, Bastiano Sanna, PhD, “Being a part of Vertex will allow the Semma team to rapidly and effectively advance our cell therapy and deliver approaches to patients who need them.” The president of Vertex, Jeffrey Leiden, MD, shared Senna’s optimism and added that the therapy options the two joined companies will be pursuing are “potentially curative” for type 1 diabetes.
A freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area, Gustaitis has a degree in journalism from Columbia University.