Skip to main content

Lab assistant Kathleen Busch working with cell cultures in a lab in Berlin.Supplied

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease marked by gradually worsening tremors, loss of motor control, impaired balance and slurred speech.

More than 100,000 Canadians suffer from the disease and 25 more are diagnosed every day, making it the fastest-growing neurological disease in the world, according to Parkinson Canada. Worldwide, more than 7.5 million people have been diagnosed.

There is currently no cure.

BlueRock Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company with operations in Toronto and New York, is developing new strategies intended to treat this devastating disease. Launched in 2016 and now a wholly owned subsidiary of Bayer AG, the company is focused on engineered cell therapies in the fields of neurology, cardiology, immunology and ophthalmology using a proprietary induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) platform.

Dr. Gordon Keller, scientific co-founder and adviser to BlueRock Therapeutics, says these are “exciting times” for cell and gene therapy research to advance medicine.Supplied

This summer, the company received fast-track approval to begin human clinical trials in Canada and the U.S. of a cell-based therapy for Parkinson’s disease. It is among the first clinical trials for cell therapy and holds promise as the next great evolution of medicine.

“These are really exciting times, this has been decades in the making,” says Dr. Gordon Keller, scientific co-founder and adviser to BlueRock and Director of the McEwen Stem Cell Institute, at the University Health Network in Toronto.

BlueRock’s research is focused on developing therapeutic cells from a type of stem cell known as a human pluripotent stem cell. The intention is to be able to use these therapeutic cells to replace cells in the body which have been damaged or destroyed.

In the case of Parkinson’s, the cells that normally produce dopamine, the chemical that carries signals between the nerves in the brain, die resulting in loss of motor function. The BlueRock team’s effort is focused on creating a cell therapy intended to restore dopamine production through the transplantation of functional dopamine producing cells made from stem cells.

BlueRock’s other priority research is a cell-based therapy intended to treat heart disease, the second-leading cause of death in Canada. Similar to the approach with Parkinson’s, the ambition is to develop healthy heart cells from stem cells that can be transplanted into heart tissue to repair the damage caused by a heart attack.

The company hopes that its research across all disease types will lead to new advancements in medicine that could help disease sufferers move from symptom management to potentially curative therapies.

“Engineered cell therapy is a whole new type of medicine that aims to repair the damage to an organ due to disease or aging,” Dr. Keller says. “And it’s really in the truest sense regenerative medicine… where you’re fixing the organ rather than having to replace it through transplantation.”


Regenerative medicine: Where will stem cells take us?

On Nov. 30, The Globe and Mail hosted a virtual event called Regenerative medicine: Where will stem cells take us? Presented by Bayer, the webinar explored the way researchers are working on stem cell advances that could change the future of medicine. Read more here.


WHAT IS BLUEROCK:

BlueRock Therapeutics is a leading engineered cell therapy company with a mission to develop regenerative medicines for intractable diseases. The company was founded in 2016 by Versant Ventures and Bayer AG. Bayer fully acquired BlueRock in 2019. Its cell+gene platform harnesses the power of cells for new medicines across neurology, cardiology, immunology and ophthalmology.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

BlueRock’s cell+gene platform enables the creation, manufacture and delivery of authentic cell therapies with engineered functionality by simultaneously harnessing pluripotent cell biology and genome editing. This enables an approach where, in theory, any cell in the body can be manufactured and any gene in the genome can be engineered for therapeutic purposes.

WHAT WORK DOES IT DO IN CANADA?

BlueRock has about 110 full-time employees in Toronto occupying approximately 30,000 square feet at the MaRS Discovery District at the University Health Network (UHN). The employees work in areas such as immunology, assay development, product engineering, clinical formulation development and cardiac cell biology, to name a few. The company also has a pilot manufacturing facility for making cell banks and clinical supply of drug product for all of its programs in Canada and the U.S.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Bayer. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.