Aldevron founders back a biotech startup that's looking to end the moral debate over cell lines once and for all
For millions of Catholics around the world, the development of new vaccines to combat Covid-19 has sparked a moral dilemma. All the approved vaccines in use relied — in some fashion — on cell lines that were derived from aborted fetal tissue.
While church leaders accepted the vaccines and recommended their use to end the pandemic, a number also highlighted their preference for the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna over the J&J and AstraZeneca shots, which they noted were more heavily dependent on cell lines that they found morally objectionable.
That intense debate over cell lines that large numbers of people object to on moral grounds, widely used in therapeutic development programs, has now spawned a newly created upstart biotech which is absolutely determined to replace cell lines like the commonly used HEK293 — used to manufacture the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine — and PER.C6, a cell line based on human embryonic retina tissue used to manufacture the J&J jab. And they plan to use new gene editing tools to do an even better job at creating cell lines that no one could object to.
The company — Agathos — is tiny right now as it steps out on the biotech stage, but it’s being founded by a trio of experienced execs who have built up Aldevron, one of the world’s top manufacturers of plasmid DNA, mRNA, CRISPR/Cas9, vectors and more, serving the burgeoning world of gene therapy developers around the world.
The 3 are James Brown, Michael Chambers and John Ballantyne. Brown recently left Aldevron in Fargo, ND to join a small band of biotech entrepreneurs that have been quietly building a thriving little hub of their own in the environs around the CMO, which has specialized in cell and gene therapy. And he’s invested in the company alongside Chambers and Ballantyne, the two men who founded the company in the late ’90s and now find themselves in the midst of one of the biggest booms in biotech.
Their new company has 3 main focuses, says Brown:
- Biomanufacturing and cell line development.
- Payload delivery, whether it’s proteins or nucleic acids how they’re delivered.
- And then the in-house development of cell and gene therapies.
“We’re just getting started,” Brown tells me in a Zoom interview from newly leased space. He’s building the initial team now that will create a platform they plan to use themselves, and make available to others.
“This isn’t the case where we have a technology that’s looking to solve a problem,” Brown says. “We have a problem and we’re looking to solve it with technology.”
They’re not looking for a debate and have vowed to remain politically agnostic. But they think they can do a better job and offer new cell lines that would be preferable — if only because mass numbers of people shun pharma products that don’t square with their conscience.
“Our goals are to take advantage of the advances in cell and gene therapy, biomanufacturing and genetic payload delivery. We look at how drugs are manufactured, especially in cell and gene therapy, and think there are opportunities to do better,” says Brown.
“In particular one of the challenges that I think the field faces with some of these manufacturing processes and the materials that are used is that they are very good at what they do but they come from ethically problematic sources,” he adds. “We can use the tools that are available to develop these drugs and manufacture them without using morally compromised cell lines and avoid that choice that people have to make in following their conscience.
“If we had something that was just as good and a company looked at it and said: ‘I have something just as good, so why wouldn’t I choose that one because more people are going to buy my product?’”
I asked Michael Chambers via email why he was co-founding the biotech. His reply:
There are a few reasons we are investing in Agathos. James is a talented scientist and CEO, and he is putting a world-class team together. We are primarily interested because Agathos meets an unmet need for millions of people from different faiths and backgrounds — the desire for technologically superior biomanufacturing cell lines and products without ethical concerns
Just starting out, they’re focused on various mammalian cell lines that could offer a better alternative. Or, they might develop cell lines from scratch.
“Michael jokes, he’s like, ‘Go out and kill a jackrabbit and put it in a blender and create cell lines from scratch and develop them,” Brown says. “Because we have so many more tools with CRISPR and gene editing and whatnot, that we can manipulate these things. We want to use these tools to do new and innovative things and address some of the shortcomings.”
By the end of this year, says Brown, he expects the team will grow to 5 to 10 people. After that, he says, “the sky’s the limit.”