By Thomas Lee
MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota– Miromatrix Inc. has one official employee, zero money, and nothing yet to develop, never mind sell. But make no mistake: Everyone wants a piece of it.
“The buzz around town is that this is hot technology,” said Mark Kroll, a medical device investor and a former top executive at St. Jude Medical Inc.”All the right people are excited about this.”
Miromatrix is close to signing a licensing agreement with the University of Minnesota to commercialize the regenerative tissue work of Dr. Doris Taylor. Two years ago, the star university scientist drew international attention for successfully growing — and keeping alive — a beating rat’s heart in jar. Taylor’s work fueled hopes that scientists can one day grow replacement organs for patients who would typically wait for transplants.
“This is the future,” said Miromatrix CEO Robert Cohen.
Both Cohen and Taylor sat down with MedCity News for their first interviews since the university spun out the company in December. (Miromatrix takes its name from Taylor’s favorite artist, Joan Miro i Ferra, a Spanish Surrealist painter and sculptor.)
“The prospect of doing something with Dr. Taylor was more exciting than anything I’ve ever seen,” said Cohen, a veteran medical device and pharmaceutical executive. “It’s a technology that everyone at the table knows can do great things.”
Said Taylor: “Certainly, my dream is to make a difference and we can’t do that unless we move the technology to products.”
It’s difficult to overstate Miromatrix’s importance to Minnesota. If successful, some say the company could spark a biotechnology boom in Minnesota the same way Earl Baaken’s home-made pacemaker forty-plus years ago launched the state’s dominance in implantable heart devices, a mighty comparison Taylor and university and industry officials do little to dispel.
State leaders who once paid little attention to homegrown start-ups are now scrambling to craft a package of financial incentives to ensure the company stays local. The school, which has traditionally struggled with technology transfer, has move cautiously, hoping to avoid past mistakes that allowed game-changing technologies to skip town.
“The university used to have trouble promoting its technologies,” Kroll said. “Now people are saying that the school is going too slow. People are complaining they didn’t get the (Miromatrix CEO) job.”
But hype doesn’t always translate into reality. With a few exceptions, biotech companies have yet to meet the lofty expectations of investors and patients. The technology is notoriously tricky and requires considerable time and money to meet strict federal regulatory requirements. Growing full-scale organs like hearts will take years, if not decades, to master.
“It’s exciting to see this moving forward but it’s also a little scary,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of science yet to be done.”
Take stem cells, which have excited scientists because of their ability to morph into cells that perform specialized functions, such as instructing the heart to beat or the pancreas to produce insulin. But delivering stem cells to the right locations in the body, coaxing them into replacement tissue and ensuring they survive has proved extraordinarily difficult.
Taylor said her technology solves those problems. In 2008, she and her team successfully grew a rat’s heart in a jar by stripping the cells from a dead rat’s heart and injecting cells from a live rat into the organ. Taylor also designed a bioreactor that could successfully nurture the nascent heart with blood and oxygen in a sterile environment — an artificial womb, if you will.
More importantly, the technology creates matrix structures that can deliver the right number of cells to the injury site, attract new cells and keep them alive so they develop into tissue and eventually organs. The patient’s body will more readily accept the new organs because they’re made from the patient’s own cells.
“The cells itself are not the whole solution,” Taylor said. “You need an architect to direct where the cells go and tell them what to do. This is a long-term fix. The cells have to survive.
“We have the tools to put stem cells into the body and determine what they will grow up to be. The technology may be complex, but the idea is simple and that’s the beauty of it. We are not inventing a new science. The science already exists.”
But first things first. Growing or repairing organs may be the ultimate goal, but Miromatrix still needs to generate sales. Cohen said the company will operate two businesses: One to develop the core technology and the other to sub-license Taylor’s work to other companies.
The first product Miromatrix would launch itself is a biological cardiac patch that can repair diseased heart tissue. After a patient suffers a heart attack, scar tissue forms, forcing the organ to pump harder to compensate for the lower amount of healthy tissue. The resulting stress can cause heart failure.
Companies like Synovis Life Technologies Inc. of St. Paul are developing scaffolding made from biomaterials like cow tissue that can attract the body’s cells and blood vessels, allowing the body to remodel the tissue type. But Miromatrix’s obvious advantage is to avoid animal tissue altogether, by using the patient’s cells to build the patches.
As for sub-licensing, Taylor envisions other biotech companies using her technology to develop skin grafts for burn victims that can grow hair or even sweat. Another application would be cosmetic products, for example for breast reconstruction after breast cancer surgery.
Cohen said it makes to sub-license because “this is a platform technology that can apply to so many efforts. If we tried to keep it all inside, it would take too long to develop, which is foolish because there is much expertise in the world.”
A larger question is whether Miromatrix will or even should coax Minnesota away from its core expertise of mechanical heart devices, an increasingly stagnant market, in favor of faster-growing industries like biologics. Medtronic Inc. (NYSE:MDT), Boston Scientific Corp. (NYSE:BSX) and St. Jude Medical (NYSE:STJ) all depend on cardiac devices for the majority of their revenues, but are aggressively moving into new markets such as neurostimulation, orthopedics and diabetes treatment.
Cohen, a former vice president of business and technology development at St. Jude, thinks biologics are key to the region’s future. He spent several years in top positions at Pfizer Hospital Products Group Inc. and Sulzer Medica before moving to the Twin Cities 11 years ago. After leaving STJ, Cohen became CEO of Travanti Pharma, which specialized in drug-delivery platforms to ease potential side effects in patients. Teikoku Pharma Inc. of Japan purchased Travanti last year for an undisclosed sum.
“Implant devices only treat the symptoms,” Cohen said. “They target only the healthy parts of the body, but they don’t solve the underlying problems.”
Minnesota has struggled to develop biotech companies, although the state has made major investments recently, supplying money for a $300 million bioresearch medical park at the university’s Minneapolis campus and a planned Elk Run Biotechnology Center outside of Rochester, in southeastern Minnesota.
A successful breakthrough like Miromatrix is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient to create a sustainable biotech industry in Minnesota, said Ross Meisner, managing partner of Dymedex Consulting in St. Paul, which advises medical technology firms.
It’s a different world compared with the scene when Baaken developed his pacemaker in the 1960s, today is fraught with regulatory, financial and competitive pressures that will challenge Miromatrix, Meisner said.
For one thing, Taylor is hardly the only scientist in this field. From California and Wisconsin to North Carolina and Pennsylvania, universities are pouring millions of dollars into Institutes for Regenerative Medicine. The U.S. military has also invested heavily in this area.
For example, the Army Institute of Surgical Medicine is working with the University of Pittsburgh to develop a powder that can regrow limbs, muscles, and burned skin. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is working on a “soup” of cells and nutrients that researchers paint onto a scaffolding in the shape of an organ. The structure is placed into an incubator and, after six weeks, a new organ emerges.
Cohen expects Miromatrix to ink a licensing agreement in about three weeks. The company will then raise seed money of less than $1 million to begin operations. Asked whether Miromatrix will remain in Minnesota, Cohen was non-committal.
“The company will be located where it will best be located,” Cohen said. “If the state can help us, we will stay here.”
The state is reportedly preparing “an economic development package” that could include a mix of tax credits, loans, or grants.
“I intend to make this technology work,” Taylor said. “Too much time has already been spent on this for it not to work.”