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Academic Spinout Pushes New Diabetes Treatment to the Clinic

The scientist-driven start-up, Pancryos is working on getting important cell therapy discoveries out to patients who have Type 1 diabetes.

Translating scientific breakthroughs to the public involves a long and winding road that is filled with a variety of obstacles. Perhaps the most effective way to make the transition is for start-ups to have deep roots in the scientific community.

This is the case for Pancryos, which was spawn from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology (or “DanStem”). The simple concept behind the start-up is to market the use of stem cells to treat patients with diabetes.

After 15 years of working in this field, I’ve reached a point where we’re able to create insulin- producing cells and move them into the clinic
Jacqueline Ameri, CEO and co-founder of Pancryos

Although this work was formalised in 2012, when Jacqueline Ameri joined DanStem as a postdoc in Henrik Semb’s research group, it began before that. Ameri explains: “I started working on this as a PhD student in 2004. After making it half-way through my thesis, I wasn’t able to make the insulin producing cells. So, I continued improving the protocol as a postdoc.”
Now, she’s the CEO and co-founder of Pancryos.

Patients avoid injections

Pancryos’ goal is to market a product that was created based on discoveries from DanStem. The solution, ­PanINSULATM, is a stem cell derived beta cell therapy that is used to treat patients with Type 1 diabetes.

According to Henrik Semb, professor and executive ­director of DanStem, “Nothing compares to the real cells. Beta cells can sense exactly when to start and stop ­secreting insulin.”
Adding to his list of accomplishments, Semb is also a co-founder of Pancryos and the scientific advisor on the collaboration between the start-up and the center at University of Copenhagen. He sees a bright future thanks to the treatment:

“Through donor islet transplantations we have the proof of concept that cell therapy works. After islet transplantation, patients do not need to inject insulin for several years. We think we can achieve similar, or perhaps even better results, with stem cell-derived beta cells.”

The research group at DanStem has already reached a point where the commercial side of the discovery is critical, but a big step towards reaching the market – bridging research and commercialisation – was the establishment of Pancryos in 2015.

Nothing compares to the real cells. Beta cells can sense exactly when to start and stop secreting insulin
Henrik Semb, ­professor and executive director of DanStem

Semb believes the collaboration between centers like DanStem and companies will be an important link in the ­future of biopharmaceutical development. “This is a relevant discovery that can impact the quality of life for ­patients. ­While there is still some way to go, we have an obligation to ­pursue this,” Semb points out.

Making a difference

The transition from a scientific discovery to a commercial product is equally important to Jacqueline Ameri. After all, she began her career in research after one of her family members fell ill. She wanted to make a difference:

“I started because I wanted to cure a disease that cannot be cured – exactly like Type 1 diabetes. I learned that if I wanted to be at the frontline and learn about the latest discoveries I had to join the scientific community and become a researcher. And now it is clear to me that if I want to make a difference in patients’ lives, our research has to be commercialized. So, I’m fulfilling my dream.”

Moving her discoveries from the lab to the clinic was Ameri’s strongest motivation to join the corporate sphere, and she is encouraged by the results of her efforts:

“After 15 years of working in this field, I’ve reached a point where we’re able to create insulin- producing cells and move them into the clinic. This wouldn’t have been possible without the discoveries we made that addressed basic scientific questions. But now we need to push further and take these discoveries into the clinic, otherwise they will never reach the market.”

To be sure, Ameri took a big step in moving from a ­researcher at DanStem to leading Pancryos. One of her less scientific tasks is pitching the product for funding in order to reach the next step. The start-up aims to initiate clinical trials in the end of 2022.

Giving Ameri the last word: “We’re at an exciting point in the company, and, with sufficient funding, we will be in a good position to reach our goal.”