This could be the year of nanotech-enabled medicines

Nanotech-enabled medicines are coming of age.

That's the big message I came away with after a recent telephone chat with Kevin Bitterman, a life sciences investor with Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, MA.

He couched that statement with some history. Nanotechnology as it relates to life sciences generated buzz as early as 2000, Bitterman explained. But Polaris didn't make its first initial investments in the space until 2006-2008. And he sees some of those investments bearing fruit today, in a way that they may not have when the technology first gained attention.

Bind Biosciences is one Polaris portfolio company. It uses nano-engineering behind its targeted cancer therapeutics dubbed Accurins, which are designed to "selectively accumulate at the site of the disease." Another, Selecta Biosciences, a 2011 Fierce 15 company, is developing nanoparticle vaccines and was founded in part by the famed MIT researcher Robert Langer. It's focused on making targeted vaccines more effective by nanoparticle tech. A third--Cerulean Pharma--is developing nanotech for making market- and development-stage drugs safer and more effective.

Late 2011 saw each of those companies gain significant investor attention in a startup market that continues to otherwise struggle. Bind and Selecta each raised about $47 million from a Russian fund led by Rusnano and others to accelerate their various pipeline developments. Cerulean closed a $15 million Series D financing round in December to fuel a Phase II study of a nanotechnology-enabled oncology drug for non-small cell lung cancer.

Bitterman spoke subjectively, of course. But he said he believes that the new rounds of financings are "an indicator of the excitement in this space" after mixed results from drug-related nanotech in years past.

Nanotechnology-driven drugs haven't worked for a variety of reasons, such as use of the wrong polymer, toxicity, or problems with manufacturing and scaling up.

"It's no small feat to bring all of these pieces together," he said.

But Bitterman said Bind, Selecta and Cerulean, and other companies in Polaris' portfolio--and others in the space today--likely have learned from these challenges and engineered their products with these development issues in mind.

"You will finally be hearing about patient's lives being impacted by this technology," he told me. "That is going to be, at least for us, the story. Nantech is no longer the future. It is really the present."

We'll be watching closely to see how these companies' stories bear out. - Mark Hollmer (twitter | email)