Cancer cells invade every body, but healthy immune systems consume them before they spread. For millions of people worldwide, however, these malignant cells overcome the immune system, destroying the body from the inside out.
“There’s a class of patients truly walking dead in the sense that they have failed to stop their cancers with chemotherapy and even a stem cell transplant,” says Philip Coelho, co-founder and chief technical officer for medical device startup SynGen Inc.
But in recent years, a new immune system-boosting method has emerged as a potential treatment for patients with cancers such as leukemia. There are medical researchers around the world who now believe immune cell therapy (immunotherapy) may be the key to stave off blood cancers and, potentially, solid-tumor cancers.
With SynGen, Coelho hopes to play a critical role in this breakthrough by supplying tools that harvest stem cells and immune cells from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow and other sources. In addition, the company has developed a device that freezes and thaws the extracted cells, as well as an instrument that washes away contaminants so the gene-modified cells can be transplanted or transfused into patients.
The Sacramento-based startup has been growing steadily since launching in 2009. After initial funding of several million dollars by the co-founders, SynGen has raised $12 million from Bay City Capital, a life sciences venture firm in San Francisco. This funding, Coelho says, helps the company expand and market its FDA-approved products and promote advanced cell processing tools. In December, SynGen moved from its downtown Sacramento location to a 7,000-square-foot office on Howe Ave., nearly doubling its laboratory space.
Coelho’s been in the field for more than 20 years and has more than 30 U.S. patents to his name. In 1989, he founded ThermoGenesis (now Cesca), another lab equipment company, and served as chairman and CEO until his retirement in 2007. But the retirement didn’t last.
“When you take time off, it gives you a chance to think abou twhere the industry is going and what type of enabling devices might be useful to the clinicians,” he says.
After launching SynGen with co-founder Bud Barry and assembling a new team of mechanical, electrical and software engineers, it took about five months to form the concept. Then another two years to create their first product to show investors.
Dr. William Gerber, a former investment partner with Bay City Capital, says he saw potential in Coelho’s innovative cell therapy tools, which work together to harvest stem cells quickly and automatically. But marketing these products poses a different challenge. Most blood banks around the world currently use a manual process, and change isn’t always easy.
“Replacing their current system with our product is not a trivial decision,” says Gerber, now president and CEO of SynGen. “We have to not only demonstrate it has superior performance, but also that it translates to superior economics.”
The plot thickens with the recent news that the owners of Coelho’s former company, Cesca, have filed a lawsuit against SynGen, claiming a SynGen patent belongs to them. Coelho insists the lawsuit has no merit, adding that, “If there’s anyone who would know, it would be me.”
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