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Start-up eyes growth with new retinal cells

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Alan Marmorstein has his eyes on the prize for his young Rochester startup.

It all started when Marmorstein, a Mayo Clinic consultant and researcher, led his lab team in the development of a new process to grow retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) cells from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC).

The iPSC-spawned retinal cells are of a better quality than the standard RPE cells previously used in eye-related research, but the process for making them "is not trivial" and is more expensive.

With the support of Mayo Clinic and local entrepreneurial advocates, Marmorstein launched LAgen Laboratories LLC in July 2015. The small company, privately owned by investors, licenses the RPE process from Mayo Clinic to grow the eye-specific cells.

LAGen, which has three employees beyond Marmorstein, goes through the lengthy and particular process to create cells to be sold to researchers at academic research facilities.

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Creating RPE cells of a quality far beyond the previous standard for researchers is building a solid business for LAgen, but Marmorstein has much greater goals for it.

"The ultimate goal is to treat macular degeneration," he said.

The theory is LAgen's special RPE cells, perhaps created from a patient's own skin cells, could replace the dead RPE cells that cause the condition that robs people of their central vision.

To prepare for that future, Marmorstein and LAgen are working to perfect the process of growing the best quality cells and how to grow them in mass.

"We're focused on one thing way down the road. It's a long distance with a lot of milestones, but it's a pretty straightforward path," said Marmorstein, standing in his northwest Rochester clean-room facility. "Therapy is still in the future, but this research is a huge step forward"

While helping treat macular degeneration or related visual disorders is a long way from where LAgen is today, it already has passed some significant milestones as a startup.

In 2016, it received a $100,000 loan from Rochester Economic Development Inc. RAEDI also helped LAgen line up industrial space for its clean-room manufacturing facility.

It moved into 3,100 square feet of space in the Slumberland complex in June 2016. That is larger than LAgen needed, but the founder say he wants to have room for future growth in Rochester.

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By November 2016, Marmorstein and his team were shipping out flasks of cells to customers.

The painstaking, seven-days-a-week process to develop the RPE cells takes about three months "to make the cells the way we want them," Marmorstein said.

LAgen now is producing about 20 flasks of cells per month. Each flask sells for about $750.

Marmorstein said Rochester is a prime spot to develop a business such as his.

"The entrepreneurial environment is phenomenal. The local support helped me bridge the divide from being just an academic to being an entrepreneur," he said.

The growth of Mayo Clinic, the Destination Medical Center initiative and other similar stem cell companies such as ReGen Theranostics is laying a foundation for what could become an entrepreneurial theme for the city.

"I hope we're part of the hub that grows an industry in Rochester that leads to a big regenerative medicine therapy focus in Rochester, Marmorstein said.

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Travis Knudsen Lead Technologist prepares to refresh growth media on stem cells at LAgen Laboratories Wednesday afternoon March 8, 2017 in Rochester, Minn.

Related Topics: MAYO CLINIC
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