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Silene CEO Dr. Alex Jiao. (NanoSurface Photo)

NanoSurface Biomedical has snapped up Silene Biotech in a union of two Seattle startups that bets on the growing importance of stem cells in drug development.

With the acquisition, NanoSurface is hoping to solve an essential problem in medicine, which is that the cells used to test new drugs typically don’t come from humans. (Fun fact: one of the most commonly-used types of cells are Chinese hamster ovary cells.)

That’s where acquisition comes in. Silene’s main business is stem cell banking, in which people pay to cryogenically preserve stem cells so that they can be used later in life. Researchers and biotech firms are working on stem cell-based treatments for conditions such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and others. By freezing stem cells when they’re young, some people hope to take advantage of medical advancements later in life.

“Stem cells have incredible potential,” said Silene CEO and co-founder Dr. Alex Jiao. “You can turn a stem cell into any other cell type in the body.”

NanoSurface chief business officer Elliot Fisher and CEO Michael Cho. (NanoSurface Photos)

But stem cells are increasingly being used for another purpose: testing early-stage drugs for factors such as safety.

Through the banking business, Silene is able to gather stem cells for use in drug development from customers that consent to have their cells used in basic science. NanoSurface bought Silene to help grow a platform that uses human stem cells to accelerate the development of new drugs.

“There’s often a failure of results in early stages of drug development to translate to the kinds of effects you would see during clinical trials in people,” NanoSurface co-founder and chief business officer Elliot Fisher told GeekWire in an interview. “Stem cells pose a really promising set of technologies that can help address that problem. They provide the opportunity to use human cells early in the drug development process.”

NanoSurface declined to say how much it paid for the startup, which graduated from Techstars Seattle in 2017.

Both NanoSurface and Silene trace their roots back to the University of Washington. Jiao and one of the other co-founders, Jenna Strully, came up with the idea for Silene after meeting in a science business class at UW. Fisher started NanoSurface with his former UW research advisor, Deok-Ho Kim.

Three of Silene’s six employees are joining NanoSurface, including Jiao, who will serve as director of assay development.  Lena Shaw, another Silene co-founder, will be acting as an advisor for NanoSurface, which will continue to operate Silene’s stem cell banking business.

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