Silene Biotech wants to help you grow a new heart or liver, in case those organs fail when you get older. The ambitious Seattle startup — founded two years ago and a member of the 2017 TechStars Seattle class — today is launching a new service that freezes and stores your white blood cells so they can be used decades later when troubling ailments set in.
The big idea? You could preserve the cells from your 23-year-old body for use when you are 65, and possibly facing life-threatening diseases.
Founded by four Seattleites, including two former University of Washington researchers, Silene is on the cutting-edge of a new field of regenerative medicine, which rebuilds parts of the body.
While growing a new heart with your own cells may be decades off, two of Silene’s co-founders, Alex Jiao and Jenna Strully, believe preparing for those medical breakthroughs now could be a huge advantage.
Jiao and Strully came up with the idea for Silene after meeting in a science business class at the University of Washington, where Jiao was studying bioengineering and Strully, who is also a medical doctor, was in the MBA program.
They competed in the UW’s business plan competition and won some initial funding during the process. The startup has raised $450,000 in total from UW grants and awards, angel investments, the founders’ own cash and funds from TechStars.
Jiao, who is just 28 years old, said he hopes the startup will “educate and raise awareness and provide a service,” along with pushing the needle towards personalized medicine, a kind of medicine that tailors treatments to specific individuals.
The company was originally named miPS Labs, a nod to its focus on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology. Unlike most stem cells, which naturally occur in the body, these cells are engineered from an average adult’s white blood cells and could be used in regenerative medicine to grow extra tissue or even entire organs.
“The first applications of this regenerative medicine technology are starting to hit clinical trials,” Jiao said.
But the older we get, the less effectively the process works, he said. Silene Biotech is collecting and storing cells now, so customers can use them years or decades down the line.
Part of their plan is a newly-developed collection system. Instead of collecting urine samples, which the startup did in their beta trial, it is now partnering with Bloodworks Northwest to collect samples of customer’s blood.
Starting Thursday, customers can sign up to have blood drawn at Bloodworks Northwest’s downtown Seattle location. Jiao said they will soon also be taking samples at other Bloodworks locations throughout the Northwest.
The sample will then be processed by the company and stored in a facility in Indianapolis, far from Seattle’s threat of disruptive earthquakes. The service costs $299 for the initial processing and first year of storage, and $50 per year after that.
Customers can access their cells at any time, retrieving them to be used in medical procedures. The cells are anonymized during processing to protect patient confidentiality, and customers also retain the right to have the cells destroyed at any time.
There’s no way to know exactly what these cells could be used for in the future, but early possibilities include growing tissue to repair organs, using lab-grown tissue to test patients for drug resistance, and even growing entire organs for patients who need transplants.
To explain the possible uses of these specialized cells, Jiao cited the first clinical trial in which they were studied. In the trial, researchers took skin cells from a patient with vision loss and converted them into lab-grown stem cells. The cells were then grown into retinal cells and implanted in the patient’s eye, and halted her vision loss.
“Maybe a decade or so off is when we’ll really start seeing the fruits of this research turn into viable therapies that can treat and cure diseases, and maybe a couple more decades until we can regrow entire organs,” Jiao said. “We’re not going to grow a heart tomorrow,” he said, but trials are about to begin that aim to growing parts of a heart.
While iPS cells are the area of Jiao’s expertise, he said the company changed its name because it realized there were many more applications to its service than just iPS cells. Stored white blood cells are being studied as a treatment for Leukemia, for example.
But the switch was also inspired by a remarkable story.
In 2007, in the Northern reaches of Siberia, Russian scientists dug up a cache of seeds hidden by a squirrel. The seeds were estimated to be 32,000 years old.
A few years later, scientists were able to germinate one of the seeds and grow it into an adult plant: the silene stenophylla. That seed is officially the oldest living organism to survive being frozen.
Jiao said he hopes Silene Biotech will do a better job than squirrels did 32,000 years ago.
We caught up with Silene’s founders for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Keep reading for a Q&A with Jiao and Strully, and check out all our Startup Spotlights here.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We store your younger cells today so you can use them in personalized therapies and diagnostics in the future.”
Inspiration hit us when: Alex (Jiao) worked on deriving patient stem cells and turning them into heart cells and he realized he could be doing this easily for himself.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrap and angels. Need a fair amount of capital to start a lab, now trying to prove the market.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Our passion, backgrounds, and our partnerships with UW and BloodworksNW
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Switching to blood and partnering with BloodworksNW
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Not moving faster
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: Zuckerberg. Goals are more in line regarding biotech, pretty audacious (Chan + Zuckerberg initiative).
Our favorite team-building activity is: Grabbing snacks or meals (team loves food).
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Chemistry
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Meet and talk to everyone and keep an open mind.
Company Site: www.silenebiotech.com