Focused on the cell therapy manufacturing bottleneck, Cellares turbocharges plans for 'shuttle' tech
When Cellares CEO and co-founder Fabian Gerlinghaus tore his ACL a few years ago, he was brought outside of a Bay Area hospital to the parking lot where he received an MRI inside a truck. He and his colleagues hope that the same can be done for cell therapy — one day — and they just received $82 million in funding to help do so.
Cellares on Wednesday bagged a Series B round, bringing its total funding to $100 million so far. Those funds will be used to develop the Cell Shuttle, a portable factory that Cellares hopes will disrupt the expensive and logistically complicated cell therapy manufacturing process.
The Cell Shuttle is an end-to-end plant in a box, designed to create an automated cell therapy platform that takes in a patient’s cells at the start and turns out a finished cell therapy product ready to be injected back into a patient at the end. Gerlinghaus and his co-founders, Alex Pesch and Omar Kurdi, see the tech as an answer to the the cell therapy’s looming production bottleneck. They want to enable pharmaceutical companies to effectively scale and deploy the tech wherever it works best, be it a hospital or a clean room in a manufacturing facility.
“How do we manufacture cell therapies at scale and at commercial scale, where all of a sudden we’re not talking about a few dozen patients in a clinical trial but tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of patients per year per therapeutic,” Gerlinghaus said in an interview with Endpoints News. “That problem is really new … and it’s unsolved. And that’s an opportunity we saw as a founding team.”
Decheng Capital, a new investor, and existing investor Eclipse Ventures led the funding, with Skyviews Life Science and 8VC also participating. The company is on track for market entry with a production quality system in 2023, and to maintain that timeline the company will have to staff up substantially.
With cell and gene therapy’s relatively young age, the industry has been forced to think outside the box. There are currently 450,000 patients today who could benefit from CAR-T therapies alone, a number that’s expected to grow over time. Right now, just 1% of patients are able to access those therapies, due in large part to manufacturing deficiencies according to Cellares. Gerlinghaus says that experts project between 10 and 20 gene therapies approved each year between now and 2025, yet only between 5% and 10% of the manufacturing capabilities already exist. That’s creating a bottleneck; one that Cellares, among several companies, aims to take on.
That search has turned up interesting results. Lentiviral player AvroBio, for instance, has retooled production “pods” typically utilized for bone marrow transplants for use in modifying patients’ stem cells. They’re housed in CMO clean rooms across the world, including at sites in Houston, Melbourne, San Jose and Maastricht. The goal is much the same: Cut the footprint and speed production.
Cellares says the shuttle can cut costs by 75% through automation and the acceleration of timelines. It’s also able to take the cells from 10 different patients, and manufacture the therapies simultaneously. Ideally, the shuttle will eliminate the two main sources of process error: operator mistakes and the risk of contamination.
“Where scientists have to stop and use the bathroom or take a lunch…the robot doesn’t sleep,” Gerlinghaus said.