Editas and Celgene sub Juno are tackling hottest immunotherapy cells
As the first CRISPR-edited cancer patients watch their treatments unfold, one of the first CRISPR companies is rejigging a major oncology deal.
Editas Medicine is amending its long-running collaboration with Celgene and their subsidiary Juno Therapeutics. The new deal will expand the focus of their work to cover a subset of immune cells that have become an increasingly hot target for immunotherapy: gamma-delta cells.
The deal will make Editas eligible for a $70 million payment along with other possible milestones and royalties.
“It’s a significant expansion” of the deal, Editas CSO Charlie Albright told Endpoints News. “These cells are part of the immune system and have significant potential to treat solid tumors.
Since it began in 2015, the Juno-Editas collaboration has focused largely on alpha-beta cells, the ones outfitted with the special receptors in current CAR-T treatments. Scientists at those companies and elsewhere have most publicly tried to apply CRISPR to improve CAR-T, which now work solely through viral gene transfer.
But they have also worked on expanding the approach to other immune cell types in hopes of making the treatment more effective, more accessible or — as is the case with some of the gamma delta research — expand it into other cancer types, especially solid tumors.
Editas has been slowly building their gamma-delta base throughout the year, Albright said. In April, they signed an agreement with BlueRock, in part to access pluripotent stem cells they hope to make into engineered gamma-delta cells that can be delivered to a patient. (Essentially a form of off-the-shelf CAR–T).
Several companies are now pursuing gamma-delta immunotherapies, including GammaDelta Therapeutics and its new spinoff Adaptate and Regeneron-backed Adicet Bio. They’re betting chiefly on these cells’ ability to penetrate the solid tumors that have been so resistant to the first wave of CAR-T treatments.
Albright argued, though, that for these techniques to work you need gene editing. Innate abilities in the cells have to be tuned up, he said. You have to increase cells’ persistence and enhance their ability to survive in a tumors’ micro-environment. Ideally, he said, you even give it new abilities, such as the power to catalyze the body’s innate immune system.
“You can’t do that with viral transduction,” Albright said. “You need gene editing.”