Gilead swoops in with $567M deal to buy CAR-T 2.0 player Cell Design Labs

Arie Belldegrun

Gilead has swooped in on the first of several planned new buyouts to build out its CAR-T operations acquired in the $12 billion Kite buyout. And it’s starting with a company that Kite’s Arie Belldegrun believed held the key to the next-gen cell therapies that will eventually overtake the pioneers.

The company is Cell Design Labs, founded on the technology orchestrated by UC San Francisco star researcher Wendell Lim. Gilead has agreed to buy the company, launched with only $34 million in investment cash from Kleiner Perkins, Kite and others, for up to $567 million.

We don’t know how much of that is in cash.

John Milligan, Gilead CEO

“We have been working with Cell Design Labs for almost 18 months, and truly appreciate the groundbreaking nature of their technology platforms,” commented David D. Chang, the head of R&D at Kite. “We’ve already integrated Throttle Switch into our CAR-T pipeline and look forward to exploring the full depth and breadth of the technologies of Gilead, Kite and Cell Design Labs to expand the cell therapy toolbox.”

Wendell Lim

Gilead promised that it would refocus its M&A strategy around CAR-T after it bought Kite and leaped out front of the CAR-T race. And CEO John Milligan clearly plans to keep that promise.

I covered this company back in the fall of 2016. Here’s a segment on what Lim was working on regarding cell therapy 2.0. It was very cool.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator has his sights set on a very high bar. Building on earlier work on synthetic Notch (synNotch) — where he tinkered with the Notch sensor so it could program a cell therapy to go after a particular cancer cell target and then issue instructions to turn genes on or off — Lim believes you can use synNotch to essentially create a cell bot that can be mustered into armies of patrolling therapeutics.

In what amounts to developing living micro devices, Lim believes the technology can be used to program T cells to produce checkpoint inhibitors, bispecific antibodies and customizable cytokines, among other things. And it can also all be integrated into CAR-T with a suicide switch.

“The way I view the last couple of years and months” of CAR-T work, says Cell Design CEO and co-founder Brian Atwood, “these are a first-generation cruise missile. They went to an address and blew up. The products in the clinic today are pretty crude. For ALL and CLL patients, they’re pretty amazing, but there’s no controllability. That’s Wendell’s thing.”


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