BioTransplant: Turned on to Tolerance
This article was originally published in Start Up
Thousands die each year of end-stage organ failure. Transplantation is the preferred therapy, but there is a chronic shortage of human organs and organ rejection remains a problem. Bringing xenotransplantation to market has become a big company affair, but BioTransplant is a biotech still looking to win a piece of the market through an unusual partnership and unique technology.
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Given the cyclical nature of the biotech industry, companies--both public and private--are forced to weather financing storms every few years. During lean times, one strategy is to cut operations to create the basis for a financing event and stave off the inevitable cash cliff. But a company focusing all its efforts on one, or at most a few, projects has very little to fall back on should its lead opportunity fail. And the equity markets may not come back in time. BioTransplant's CEO-Donald Hawthorne, brought in to save the company, understood from the beginning that companies with just a few months of cash left tend to fail. His challenge: to avoid failure, while at the same time maximizing the chance that in the event of bankruptcy, at least some of the assets of the company could create additional value.
New technologies enable the rapid processing of genetic information, but since gene data isn't associated with specific diseases and diseased tissues, in and of itself it isn't clinically useful. A new breed of start-ups aims to provide both the phenotypic and genotypic sides of the equation by creating databases of patients and patient samples. Still unclear is how much drug firms will pay for disease-associated gene data; genetics firms are taking various approaches to monetizing their databases, from focusing initially on high-value diagnostics to creating true target-discovery businesses, to selling their data along with associated software and services. There are also ethical issues to hammer out. The new companies must take care to protect patients' rights. They must consider the need for explicit consent to use the information collected from patients, especially when they are participating in research whose purpose is as yet undefined.