Mahni Ghorashi and Ilya Tokhner, both MBA candidates for 2012, have a short-term goal of completing their studies at Owen this May. Their long-term plans are slightly more ambitious—and could change health care forever.
Ghorashi, Tokhner and a third partner, Jordan Plews, have formed Regenome, a biotech startup that ultimately hopes to use stem cells to regrow human organs. Ghorashi and Tokhner were working in Silicon Valley last summer when they met Plews, a scientist whose expertise is turning adult tissue into pluripotent stem cells, which can become different cell types.
“Every cell has genes that are turned on and off,” Tokhner explains. “You can ‘convince’ a skin cell that it’s actually a stem cell. Then, by activating the appropriate genes, it can become a heart cell or any other cell type. It’s like a coffee mug made of clay. You can melt that down and reform it into something else, but it’s still clay.”
“We’re not claiming that we’re going to be rebuilding hearts for people quite yet, but we see this as the future of not only personalized medicine, but of health care in general.”
The potential for the technology is endless, but the Regenome team has to deal with first things first—like completing school. “It’s difficult at times to concentrate on classwork,” Tokhner says. “We’ve tried to take classes that are relevant and apply them directly to what we’re doing. Fortunately we’ve been able to get some independent study credit, and the university as a whole has been very supportive.”
As with all scientific and medical ventures, this one is full of hurdles, from funding to applying for patents to FDA approval. However, one point in Regenome’s favor is that stem cells derived from adult tissues don’t carry the same controversy as embryonic stem cells, which, as their name suggests, are derived from human embryos.
As a means of income to help fund research down the road, the group has come up with a cosmetic application for their technology and hopes to be in the market within a year. To help guide them through this process, Ghorashi and Tokhner have enlisted fellow 2012 MBA candidate Dan Angius, who serves as a venture consultant to the team.
“We’re looking to harness the potential of stem cells in a topical cosmetic application,” Ghorashi says. “Our next step is actively closing our A round of fundraising. Step two is to begin clinical testing while also building out the distribution channel of the products through cosmetics lines.” While the group hopes that their cosmetic application is a success, they view it, and the income it generates, as a stepping stone to their ultimate goal—one that redefines the notion of personalized health care.
“If you injure your spinal cord and lose mobility, you only have about a one-week window before scar tissue builds up and makes recovery practically impossible,” Tokhner says. “In the future we might be able to repair the damage using your own stem cells, but it could take months to derive the stem cell line. If you don’t have a stem cell line ready to go, you’re out of luck.”
“Early-stage companies and startups are the most creative types of business you can have. Our roles for the next few years will be malleable because we’ll have to cover the whole range of responsibilities.”
That’s why the Regenome team envisions a future where stem cell banks are common. In effect the banks would serve as high-tech insurance policies against injury and illness.
“Say you need a new liver,” Tokhner says. “You call your stem cell bank and the stem cells are overnighted. We then arrange to literally grow you a new liver in vitro. You’re your own donor so there’s no danger of rejection, and you don’t have to take immunosuppressant drugs.”
Obviously the days of being your own organ donor are years away, but the Regenome team sees it as inevitable. “We’re not claiming that we’re going to be rebuilding hearts for people quite yet, but we see this as the future of not only personalized medicine, but of health care in general,” Tokhner says. “Longevity will go up and we’ll also start seeing new approaches in the ways the pharmaceutical and biotech companies conduct their research and development.”
As versed as they are in the technical side of their venture, neither Ghorashi nor Tokhner considers himself a scientist. Ghorashi, who is from Knoxville, Tenn., studied literature at MIT and did graduate work at Yale. He is also a concert pianist. Tokhner, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union, comes from a long line of doctors. He, however, earned his undergraduate degree in international business at Long Beach State.
Their disparate backgrounds aside, this venture satisfies a common entrepreneurial spirit in both Ghorashi and Tokhner. “Early-stage companies and startups are the most creative types of business you can have,” says Ghorashi, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer. “Our roles for the next few years will be malleable because we’ll have to cover the whole range of responsibilities. There will be different challenges every day.”
Tokhner, who serves as Regenome’s CEO, agrees.
“I like to go really fast, and a startup venture is the perfect environment for me,” he says. “I worked for a large corporation and felt very stifled—I always had to ask permission. With this, I can run 100 miles an hour in every possible direction.”