Duke-NUS, Novo Nordisk Join Hands to Study and Develop Stem Cell-based Therapy for Heart and Eye Diseases

Professor Karl TryggvasonDuke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and Novo Nordisk A/S (Novo Nordisk), a Danish multinational pharmaceutical company, have joined hands to study and develop a novel stem cell-based therapy to treat two chronic conditions: heart failure and vision loss.

The partnership is the result of a December 2017 agreement between Duke-NUS and Novo Nordisk that will see funding support from Novo Nordisk for research at Duke-NUS to study and grow heart muscle and retinal cells to treat cardiomyopathy and macular degeneration. BioLamina, a Sweden-based biotechnology company, is a partner of this project and provides access to certain technologies proprietary to BioLamina. 

Cardiomyopathy is a progressive disease affecting the heart muscle. In most cases, the heart muscle deteriorates and the heart stops pumping blood, usually leading to heart failure. Cardiovascular diseases are one of the leading causes of mortality worldwide, and is responsible for nearly one in three deaths in Singapore. 

Macular degeneration is a chronic irreversible medical condition that results in loss of vision because of damage to the macula, a part of the retina’s core. A person starts to go blind when the macula deteriorates. As the disease develops when a person ages, it is often referred to as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is a major cause of blindness in those 60 years or older. In the West, more than 30% among its elderly population have some form of AMD. In Singapore, the figure is similar.

In the agreement between Duke-NUS and Novo Nordisk, Novo Nordisk will provide research funding for the next three to five years. The aims of the research, led by Duke-NUS Professor Karl Tryggvason, are to develop clinical-grade stem cell derived cells for heart muscle, and the retina.  

Duke-NUS researchers have developed a novel system for growing cells in chemically defined culture systems that support stem cell self-renewal and directed differentiation of the cells. This much-improved method is also free from animal products and has been shown to form new heart muscle tissue in injured mouse heart. 

Commending the agreement as one of the biggest research partnerships with industry in Duke-NUS’ history, Professor Patrick Casey, Senior Vice Dean of Research at Duke-NUS, says: “This partnership is a solid testament to our innovative research, and it puts Duke-NUS at the forefront of cutting-edge biomedical research to develop effective therapeutics for chronic conditions such as heart failure and macular degeneration.” 

“Novo Nordisk is very excited about this partnership. Both Duke-NUS and Novo Nordisk have a significant expertise and experience within stem cell based research which in combination has potential to make a significant difference for people with serious chronic diseases such as dry age-related macular degeneration (dry AMD) and chronic heart failure (CHF),” says Marcus Schindler, senior vice president in Novo Nordisk.

Professor Tryggvason, who is also the co-founder of BioLamina, adds: “The advancement in the technique to grow better-quality cells is a significant step in developing stem cell-based therapies. The next step for us will be to assess their suitability for human use in the appropriate pre-clinical models. The funding from Novo Nordisk provides much-needed support to further develop stem cell-based therapeutics to be targeted towards specific diseases.”