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Melton headsht 2017Semma Therapeutics cofounder Doug Melton. Courtesy Semma Therapeutics

  • Semma Therapeutics, a startup developing treatments with an aim to cure type 1 diabetes, just raised $114 million. 
  • It is using stem cells to make beta cells, which are key to regulating blood sugar in the body. In people living with type 1 diabetes, the body has destroyed these cells.
  • If it works, it could lead to other regenerative medicine treatments. 

A startup that wants to change the way we treat type 1 diabetes just raised $114 million. 

Semma Therapeutics, a company that got its start in 2014, is researching ways to use stem cells that act like key cells responsible for regulating blood sugar levels in the bodies of healthy people. The aim is to treat — and effectively cure — type 1 diabetes. 

The latest funding round was co-led by Eight Roads Ventures and Cowen Healthcare Investments, while existing investors MPM Capital, F-Prime Capital Partners, ARCH Venture Partners, Novartis, Medtronic and JDRF’s T1D Fund also invested as part of the round. 

The $114 million, combined with $49 million the company raised previously, brings Semma’s total funding to $163 million. The plan is to use this funding to get Semma’s treatment, which has been tested in animals, into human trials. 

About 30 million Americans have a form of diabetes, a condition in which the body can’t process sugar in the blood correctly. For the roughly 1.25 million people living with type 1 diabetes, the condition is an autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly kills beta cells found in the pancreas that are supposed to make insulin, a hormone that helps people absorb and process the sugar in food.

Treating type 1 diabetes is —  in theory —   straightforward: If you could find a way to replace the beta cells in the body, the body would start producing its own insulin again. 

But that’s much easier said than done so, for now, people with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin to live. Insulin, a drug that’s been around for almost a century can manage those blood sugar levels, but requires a lot of maintenance and monitoring to be sure that the person’s blood sugar doesn’t get too high or fall too low. To make things simpler, companies have been working on devices like the “artificial pancreas” to both deliver insulin and keep blood sugar levels in check. 

But Semma wants to take that a step further by going in and replacing the beta cells that the body’s mistakenly destroyed. That way, the beta cells could create insulin when needed directly within the body. It’s based on the work of Doug Melton at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, who’s the scientific founder of Semma. The company’s name comes from Melton’s kids, Sam and Emma, who both have type 1 diabetes

Here’s how it works

  • Beta cells that can be pulled off the shelf and put in the body of people living with type 1 diabetes have to be built from embryonic stem cells. 
  • The cells are taken at their embryonic stage and exposed to growth factors used to grow them into beta cells. (Embryonic stem cells could potentially form any cell type that’s found in the body, like muscle or hair cells). 
  • The newly created beta cells are then inserted into an implant the size of a band-aid, that would be placed under a patient’s skin. The cells would stay in the device so they wouldn’t interact with the immune system (which is pre-disposed to attack beta cells). 
  • But they would produce insulin which could help the body control blood sugar.

Right now, Semma’s work is still in preclinical days so there’s still a lot to know including whether this implant would have to be replaced over time. 

But it could dramatically change how we treat diabetes. Mark Fishman, Semma’s chairman, told Business Insider that the hope is that this treatment will be a cure. 

And the stem cell research could go beyond type 1 diabetes to other areas of regenerative medicine, Todd Foley, managing director at MPM Capital, which helped found Semma, said. “We look at it as a cell therapy opportunity,” Foley said. Cell therapies have been gaining traction in the past few years, and in August the FDA approved the first cell therapy that’s being used to treat cancer.

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