Current Edition

Bayer backs cell therapy startup with $215M in funding

  • Bayer is betting cell therapy’s future will be led by allogeneic, or “off-the-shelf,” treatments, backing biotech start-up Century Therapeutics with $215 million.
  • The financing, which was announced Monday, comes via the German pharma’s venture investment arm Leaps by Bayer. Versant Ventures, Century’s creator, and Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics will add another $35 million to bring Century’s funding to $250 million.
  • Century aims to develop therapies for blood cancers as well as solid tumors. Unlike other allogeneic companies, however, the newly minted biotech will use induced pluripotent stem cells, manufactured by Fujifilm.

First-generation cell therapies, such as those developed by Novartis and Gilead, rely on immune cells collected from each individual patient. A painstaking manufacturing process then yields the engineered CAR-T cells capable of seeking out and attacking cancer, which are then reinfused back into the patient.

That complex production is one reason driving investment and research into so-called allogeneic cell therapies.

Freed from the need to extract patient immune cells each time, such treatments could in theory be administered rapidly, rather than in the two to three weeks now typical for CAR-T therapies like Novartis’ Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel) and Gilead’s Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel).

Allogene Therapeutics, for example, raised more than $300 million in an initial public offering last fall based on the promise of its allogeneic product pipeline. Led by the founders of Yescarta’s original developer, Kite Pharma, Allogene is seen as one of the leaders in “off-the-shelf” cell therapy.

Allogene uses T cells from screened healthy donors it then engineers to express chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs — a point of contrast with Century’s planned approach using induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs.

Reprogrammed into an embryonic-like state, iPSCs can be developed into other cell types and propagate indefinitely. For Century, the cells will be expanded and differentiated into immune effector cells, the foundation for the biotech’s planned allogeneic programs.

Fujifilm’s backing gives Century an iPSC manufacturer from the start.

Others are exploring use of iPSCs in cancer cell therapy. Fate Therapeutics, for example, has a pipeline of iPSC-based immuno-oncology candidates.

For Bayer, the funding gives a window into early allogeneic research. While the pharma has invested more heavily in cancer, owning full rights to Loxo Oncology’s Viktrakvi, it hasn’t moved into the cancer cell therapy field.

It has, however, invested in iPSCs, having teamed up with Versant in 2016 to launch BlueRock Therapeutics with $225 million in funding. BlueRock, though, is exploring whether iPSCs could be used to develop treatments for cardiovascular and neurological disorders.

Bayer’s venture arm has also backed Casebia Therapeutics, a CRISPR-based gene editing biotech, and Jyon Bio, which is focused on agriculture.