Can B cells break the boundaries of cell therapy? Longwood startup has $52M to prove a new engineering tech
Back in December 2017, as the cell therapy world was still basking in the virtually back-to-back approvals of two pioneering CAR-Ts, researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute reported a scientific first in a different corner of the field: engineer B cells to treat disease.
The team, led by David Rawlings and Richard James, eventually worked with Longwood Fund to start a biotech around those findings. And now Atlas Venture and RA Capital Management are coming on board to lead a $52 million launch round, joined by Alta Partners, for Be Biopharma.
“B cells have been such an attractive cell type,” Aleks Radovic-Moreno, an entrepreneur-in-residence who co-founded the biotech, told Endpoints News. “It just wasn’t their time yet. But now we feel confident that it’s their time to step into the limelight.”
The two classic stumbling blocks, he added, are figuring out how to engineer them efficiently and culture them in sufficient quantities.
But once Rawlings and James cracked the code through homology-directed repair, it opened up potential applications beyond what current cell therapies can do. While T cells are designed to kill cells marked by certain antigens, B cells’ unique function is that they make “unbelievable quantities of proteins” — from antibodies to immune modulating factors.
You can also program a B cell to go to a specific tissue, without the need for conditioning or lymphodepletion, while retaining an option to titrate and redose if you don’t get it right the first time.
“If you think about what disease you want where you want a protein to be secreted in a targeted fashion, that’s actually a really big list,” Radovic-Moreno said, listing cancer, autoimmune diseases, monogenic disorders and infectious diseases as areas being explored.
In a previous interview, James also gave hemophilia B as an example of a protein deficiency disease where a B cell therapy can potentially cure patients.
Be Bio benefits from the trail that hundreds of T cell therapy players have now traveled, stepping into a world where logistics, genetic modification and cell purification tools are readily available. But its core area of expertise — mapping out the biology of B cells and manipulating them — remains one that’s only housing academic groups so far.
Currently managed by an interim team consisting of Radovic-Moreno as president and David Steinberg as CEO, the team is growing every week at the Alexandria LaunchLabs in Kendall Square. In addition to the scientific founders, it’s also guided by an illustrious scientific advisory board, consisting of Frances Eun-Hyung Lee, an asthma expert at Emory, as well as Harvard’s Shiv Pillai and UCSF’s Jason Cyster, who bring years of experience studying B cells.
He may not be ready to discuss concrete drug targets or timelines yet, but for Radovic-Moreno, who played a leading role in getting Siddhartha Mukherjee’s engineered hematopoietic stem cells off the ground at Vor Bio, it’s all reminiscent of the early days of T cell work.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a similar trajectory 5 years from today,” he said. “I don’t think there will be hundreds of B cell companies, but I’m gonna bet it’s more than one.”