Continuing push beyond Covid-19 vaccines, Moderna partners with 'CAR-M' biotech on in vivo cancer cell therapies
Since coming into a massive windfall with its Covid-19 vaccines, Moderna has been looking for ways to expand its mRNA technologies into other promising areas. On Monday, the biotech took its next step toward that goal.
Moderna is partnering with Carisma Therapeutics on a huge slate of “CAR-M” programs to treat cancer, the companies announced Monday morning, promising $45 million upfront and $35 million in equity. Though the amount of milestones was not specified, the biotechs noted Moderna has the option to nominate up to 12 targets for development.
Carisma will lead preclinical and discovery efforts while Moderna will take charge for clinical studies and potential commercialization.
“It’s a clear technology fit for our mRNA LNP platform,” Rose Loughlin, Moderna SVP of research and early development, told Endpoints News of the deal. “By partnership, it really lets us quickly expand the reach of that platform … It’s ideal for this type of application, given what they can do. They really complement our current oncology portfolio.”
The Covid-19 vaccine has turned Moderna from a biotech with no approved products into a company worth more than $87 billion as of Monday morning — and its CEO, Stéphane Bancel, into a multibillionaire. Prior to Monday, Moderna already had a few oncology programs under its belt, including cancer vaccines and experimental therapeutics injected directly into tumors.
But Monday’s deal marks a new step in that portfolio expansion, pushing Moderna into in vivo cell therapy technology. When the platforms are used together, Loughlin said, the mRNA and LNPs will be used to deliver the CAR-M therapies, where ‘M’ stands for monocytes, a class of innate immune cells.
“As we think about this application, in immuno-oncology, it is very much directing the immune impact of these cells to the tumor, changing that tumor microenvironment and then utilizing the rest of the immune system, really training it to fight the tumor,” Loughlin said. “They’re also presenting antigens from that cancer cell.”
For Carisma, the partnership marks the next step in the company’s growth, CEO Steve Kelly told Endpoints. The biotech, launched back in 2017 to develop solid tumor cell therapies using CARs and macrophages, put its first program into the clinic last year for an autologous CAR-M targeting HER2-expressing tumors.
Monocytes, though, are the precursor to macrophages, Kelly noted, essentially a prodrug for the white blood cells. The companies will focus on delivering mRNA expression for CARs to monocytes in circulation, which will then “traffic to the tumor and differentiate into macrophages at that point,” Kelly said.
The way the two platforms fit together “comes down to the specificities of the lipid nanoparticle,” Kelly added.
It remains to be seen whether Moderna’s successes in Covid-19 can be replicated in other fields, but early returns have not always impressed investors. Last month, Moderna released data for its mRNA flu shots touting significant boosting of antibodies, but they didn’t appear to offer any clear advantages over already approved jabs.