Novartis vet Usman “Oz” Azam and Penn researcher Carl June are two of the ultimate insiders in the CAR-T revolution. They each played prominent roles in advancing Novartis’ breakthrough therapy Kymriah to an historic first-ever approval. They are now allied in an attempt to do it all much, much better with next-gen tech which just attracted a $100 million mega-round from an unconventional group of global globiotech investors.
And after staying quiet for more than a year, they’re already in the clinic with two open programs, playing a key role co-funding a cutting-edge cell therapy study at Penn using CRISPR to modify immune cells.
Azam, you may recall, headed up Novartis’ cell and gene therapy unit before its spectacular breakup a year and a half ago, as the pharma giant managed the unlikely task of slashing its costs while maintaining the lead on getting the first CAR-T therapy approved. As the restructuring went in place in the summer of 2016, Azam left and soon after jumped to the Penn spinout, remaining relentlessly under the radar — until today.
So what, given the billions of dollars being invested in I/O, makes Tmunity different from the rest of the growing crowd?
Azam quickly zeroes in on June and the network of scientists at Penn enlisted in the exclusive collaboration deal they have to work together.
It’s the “biotech-like structure that Carl founded, that can translate these therapies through the regulatory hurdles and into clinical trial settings” that make one key difference, he says.
Azam offered that Tmunity along with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy are funding a newly opened — and closely watched — trial at the University of Pennsylvania using CRISPR gene editing tech to modify cancer cells. And he adds there’s also a clinical trial underway in prostate cancer they’re backing as well, with more programs in the pipeline out of Penn.
I asked Azam if there was one key thing he had learned about the field at Novartis. His reply:
“The big learning I had was linking and bringing together translational medicine and manufacturing as soon as possible.”
The journey from proof-of-concept to commercialization was just 7 years, he adds. “That’s pretty breathtaking.” And doing it required a quick leap from early clinical development in translational medicine and “embracing manufacturing and technical competencies early on. That’s been the biggest challenge for the field. Not just academic setting success, but making products.”
The investors include:
— Gilead, the new owner of CAR-T player Kite, which has vowed to stay in the forefront of new tech in the space.
— The Parker Institute, the nonprofit research group backed by FaceBook billionaire Sean Parker, out to spark new brushfires of innovation.
— Ping An Ventures, the venture arm of the Global Fortune 500 Chinese insurance outfit, which also backed Shanghai-based Innovent Biologics.
— And Be The Match BioTherapies, with the seed round investors at the University of Pennsylvania and Lilly Asia Ventures.
“We were also attracted to the global potential of the pipeline, especially the T cell therapies in oncology in China, as well as the scope beyond oncology into autoimmune and infectious diseases, as we begin to expand our investment portfolio,” said Jiang Zhang, managing partner of Ping An Ventures.
I asked the Parker Institute why they decided to help bankroll the company, and got a response from Michael Polansky, president of the Parker Group and member of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy Board of Directors:
As you know Carl June at the University of Pennsylvania is such a giant in the field of cell therapy and CAR-T, such a pioneer, which is why we wanted to bring him on as a director at the Parker Institute. His leadership and insight into the field of cell therapy are invaluable.
With him as scientific founder of Tmunity, that gave us a lot of confidence that the technology and the science will be top tier. And from what we’ve seen there’s no question that they have a solid plan for developing the next wave of successful cell and gene therapies, really translating those the discoveries so they can be developed into therapies at an accelerated pace to help more cancer patients faster.
So far, the biotech has made all of two announcements, starting with Azam’s arrival and ending with Mike Christiano’s move to the BD side of the business after playing a similar role in Novartis.
Now that the A round is in, Azam says he can start recruiting, building up the small team as they continue to work with top investigators at Penn on the research, technology and clinical trials.
“It’s a great space to be in now,” he says, “and will be for decades to come.”
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