Startups, Venture

CAR macrophage tumor tech created by UPenn star scientists gets $53M

A couple of star scientists at UPenn just got financial backing from AbbVie and other investors to come at solid tumors in an unusual way: re-engineering macrophages to eat up cancer cells.

The Philadelphia-based company was first christened “Carma Therapeutics” when it launched last year, but thanks to pesky trademark conflicts its stepping out today with a new moniker: Carisma Therapeutics. And the new name comes with $53 million in a Series A round led by AbbVie Ventures and HealthCap.

Saar Gill

Loaded with cachet among cancer researchers, the company’s founding team includes Saar Gill, a rising expert in CAR-T cells and an assistant professor at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. But Carisma’s CEO Steven Kelly tells me the company’s tech platform was largely built on PhD candidate Michael Klichinsky’s thesis. Klichinsky, who co-founded Carisma, counted both Gill and Penn’s cancer luminary Carl June as his advisors. And the company managed to bring June, who launched his own cancer startup Tmunity earlier this year, onto its scientific advisory board.

Carisma is working in a very different space than Tmunity, Kelly said, but their goal is common enough: get therapeutics into solid tumors.

Steven Kelly

“CAR-T has profound results in hematological malignancy, but it has a difficult time reaching the site of the tumor,” Kelly said. “If it does reach the tumor site, it’s met with an immunosuppressive environment.”

This is not the case for macrophages. These blobby-looking phagocytic cells are the Pacman of the body, sleuthing blood and tissue, seeking out proteins or cells that need to be nixed. They infiltrate tissue and hang out there, devouring cells as needed. Since these cells have no trouble reaching the tumor site, Carisma is hoping to harvest them, re-engineer them with CAR targeting tech, and deliver them back to the patient.

“We’ve demonstrated that these cells will traffic to the site of the tumor,” Kelly said. “In fact, half the cells there are macrophages.”

With the company’s new proceeds, Carisma will take its tech through preclinical development, IND, and enter Phase I testing by 2019, Kelly said. The excess funds will go towards building a pipeline of oncology drugs and exploring other areas protein degradation might be useful. Plus, they’re 5-person team must expand. They’re hunting for a new CSO and CMO, and plan to hire 20 FTEs over the next 12 months.

Image: Michael Klichinsky (CARISMA)


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