Business & Tech

Two venture firms launch Cambridge biotech with $48.5m in funding

Jason Gardner has been selected to lead Magenta Therapeutics. He is a veteran biopharma executive.

Jason Gardner has been selected to lead Magenta Therapeutics. He is a veteran biopharma executive.

A pair of local venture capital firms said Wednesday that they are leading a $48.5 million funding round to launch Magenta Therapeutics, a Cambridge biotech aiming to develop drugs that can be used in stem cell transplants to treat blood and immunological disorders.

Third Rock Ventures of Boston and Atlas Venture of Cambridge are licensing technology developed in labs at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General and Boston Children’s hospitals to help power Magenta’s effort to create safer and more effective stem cell procedures. The companies are known for backing early-stage life sciences companies in the Boston area.

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“The challenge today is that many patients never receive effective transplants,” said Jason Gardner, a veteran biopharma executive who has been tapped as Magenta’s chief executive. “We know a lot more about the science now, and we think it’s ripe to be taken to patients.”

While it is officially launching Wednesday, the startup has been working out of the Atlas offices in Technology Square for more than a year. It recently moved into larger quarters as the first tenant in the Forsyth Entrepreneurial Science Center, a new incubator outside Kendall Square. It has about 20 scientists and researchers, and Gardner said the staff will double over the next year.

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Gardner, 45, a Liverpool, England, native who did postdoctoral work at Harvard and built the stem cell business unit at British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC, joined Atlas last year as an entrepreneur in residence before launching Magenta. Third Rock, which had been investigating a stem cell venture of its own, ultimately decided to join forces with Atlas.

“We both wanted to start a transformative company in the stem cell space,” said Bruce Booth, a partner in the Atlas life sciences group. “We’re trying to broaden the applications.”

While stem cell transplants have been around for about 50 years, they are seldom used outside the cancer field — and even there are usually a last resort — because of the high risk of death, according to Magenta’s founders. By improving techniques for harvesting stem cells from the blood and a stem cell recovery process known as engraftment, Magenta hopes to make transplants safer for patients with blood disorders and autoimmune diseases, as well as cancers.

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“It became clear we could update the science behind therapeutics in this area and radically change the benefit-to-risk ratio,” said Third Rock partner Alexis Borisy.

Atlas and Third Rock together will own the majority of Magenta’s stock, but other investors include Google Ventures; Access Industries; and the Partners Innovation Fund, an affiliate of the Partners HealthCare network.

Gardner said he views Magenta as a “platform” company with the potential to generate multiple drugs targeting a wide range of diseases. He said it will seek to strike research partnerships with other drug companies, including gene therapy and gene editing companies that might use stem cell transplants in their own procedures.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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