Satellite Bio, a Cambridge startup focused on developing tissue implants to “repair, restore, or even replace” diseased or dying organs, launched Wednesday with $110 million in funding.
The company, which has been operating in stealth mode for two years, is based on the work of two local biological engineers: Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Christopher Chen of Boston University. Its initial focus will be on liver disease.
Bhatia, a liver cell expert, and Chen, a blood vessel expert, met when they were in graduate school more than two decades ago. Since then, ongoing collaborations at their labs have led to the development of techniques for growing liver cells in a biodegradable gel that can be implanted in animals to treat disease.
The gel secretes molecules that attract blood vessels to connect with the implant, providing the tissue with crucial nutrients and oxygen. “You are fighting the clock to grow blood vessels before those cells stop getting nutrients,” Bhatia said.
Crucially, these connections allow the tissue to act as a “satellite” organ that performs the same functions as a bona fide liver, but at a remote location. Flush with cash, the new startup now plans to take that invention out of the lab and into the clinic.
“It’s a dream. It’s been a long time coming,” Bhatia said.
Tissue engineering is still a small and largely experimental sector of the biotech industry. According to the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, a biotech trade group, tissue engineering firms raised $341 million last year, a small fraction of the more than $22 billion raised by companies developing cell or gene therapies.
Satellite is particularly interested in creating liver tissues that can be implanted under the skin or muscle to help repair a damaged liver or compensate for a defective one. Dave Lennon, Satellite’s chief executive, said the therapy could “be utilized across a range of potential liver conditions.”
But the details of nearly every aspect of the company’s technology and its applications are vague. Lennon won’t disclose which specific liver diseases Satellite is working on or where the company will source its liver cells — although he says cadavers and stem cells are options. And the firm describes its technology in only the broadest strokes.
“The person has diseased cells and we give them healthy cells. And in doing that, we deliver therapeutic benefit for the patient,” said Laura Lande-Diner, the startup’s chief business officer and former neurobiology researcher and instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Satellite is less bashful when describing the potential scope of its tissue implants. “We believe that this technology can be used across a number of different types of diseases,” Lennon said, including common conditions that affect millions of Americans such as “metabolic disease, chronic liver disease, severe obesity, and potentially even neurodegeneration.”
Evidence for the sweeping claim is scant at this time. Initial applications of the technology will likely be limited to patients with severe enough disease to justify the use of immunosuppressive drugs needed to prevent their immune systems from rejecting the implant.
Bhatia and Chen have shown that liver tissue implants can engraft in mice, grow into larger liver-like structures, and perform some of the basic metabolic functions of the organ. Although it hasn’t been proven to work in humans, Bhatia doesn’t think of the implants as early-stage technology. “There is nothing super risky about the biology.”
Lennon said that Satellite has already tested its tissue implants in rodents and larger animals, and that the firm’s current focus is on scaling up its ability to manufacture the tissues for use in humans. The company plans to begin clinical studies in 2024.