European investors pour $156M to beat Bluestone, Third Rock and RA Capital in multibillion-dollar race to the clinic
Amid burgeoning efforts to create a new type of cell therapy out of regulatory T cells — whether by channeling or blocking their immunosuppressive power — Quell Therapeutics wants to shoot for a first.
If everything goes well, the Syncona-backed biotech will be in the clinic early next year, marking what it calls the historic feat of dosing a patient with a CAR-Treg with multiple edited genes.
Having shied away from the spotlight since closing a modest Series A two years ago, Quell is now loud and clear about those next steps with $156 million in Series B cash.
“This is the round where people sit up and take notice,” was how CEO Iain McGill put it to Endpoints News.
The megaround is just part of it — and likely a small part at that. Within the past year, multiple outfits from Jeffrey Bluestone’s Sonoma to RA Capital-backed GentiBio to Third Rock’s Abata Therapeutics have each bagged impressive raises to fund their respective approaches, and that’s not to mention Mozart, Egle, TRex Bio and others who are all promising to generate potent, stable, safe and durable cells that can tamp excessive autoimmune or inflammatory reactions.
But come 2022, Quell reckons it will be in the exclusive club of clinical-stage companies developing a CAR-Treg. Sangamo is the only other player it sees there for now.
The company also believes that its platform, based on science out of King’s College London, University College London and Hannover Medical School, has picked out design components that make its Tregs even stronger.
Tregs, McGill explained, are a double-edged sword: They can flip from a suppressor phenotype into an attacking, effector phenotype. In a worst case scenario, this change can lead not only to lack of efficacy but a safety concern whereby the CAR-Tregs turn out to destroy the very tissue they were intended to protect.
To prevent that, Quell transduces the cells with multiple copies of FOXP3, which McGill called the “master transcription factor” for a Treg.
“By hardwiring the cells with multiple copies of FOXP3, you sort of lock the cells in that phenotypic suppression mode,” he said. “So you transcriptionally lock them as a Treg. And that gives them stability. What we found when we started doing that, because in addition to giving the cells phenotypic stability, it also increased their suppressive potency.”
The first program, which is designed to wean patients off immunosuppressants following liver transplants, knocks in three additional genes to “reset the mechanics of rejection.” The UK has cleared a clinical trial and Quell is on track to recruit its first patient by the end of this year.
Behind that it has lined up two programs in different directions, one aimed at ALS and the other for type 1 diabetes.
“Here, we expect execution to be a continuing, focusing challenge and a key differentiator for success,” said Rachel Mears, partner at Jeito Capital, which co-led the round alongside Ridgeback Capital Investments, SV Health Investors and Fidelity Management & Research Company.
Mears is joining the board of directors alongside Ridgeback managing director Jeffrey Long-McGie and SV managing partner Houman Ashrafian.
The round will also help fund the build out of manufacturing capabilities, which McGill noted is similar to traditional CAR-T but different in meaningful ways. For instance, the patients they’re looking to treat are different from the very sick cancer patients seeking autologous cell therapies, for whom vein-to-vein time is a life-or-death matter.
Quell, on the other hand, is working with stable patients, such as those between one and five years post-transplant:
We don’t have to intervene immediately for each of these patients, which means that we can warehouse patients, we can sequence patients, we can bring them into our manufacturing center in a way that suits the scheduling of manufacturing, rather than having to organize manufacturing around provision of the leukapheresis to manufacture a product, which is exactly what you have to do in oncology. So we can use the facility in a more ordered and structured process, which I think brings great benefit in terms of stability and robustness of the manufacturing process going forward.