'Industrializing the production of cells': Another iPSC player joins the quest for off-the-shelf cell therapies
Scientists have been after the “Holy Grail” of cell therapy — an off-the-shelf product — for years. Notch Therapeutics is now joining the quest with a tech platform it says can industrialize the production of cells. And on Wednesday, it unveiled a $85 million Series A to get going.
Notch was founded in 2018 by Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker and Peter Zandstra, but “really kicked off” in late 2019 when it signed a deal with Allogene to research allogeneic cell therapy candidates, CEO David Main said. The nascent biotech got $10 million upfront, and stands to earn up to another $294.2 million in milestones.
Main, who came on board in 2020, plans on using Notch’s Series A funds to grow two things: the staff and the pipeline. Over the next two years, Main expects the 35-person company to expand to about 100 employees, and file its first IND.
What sets Notch apart from others working on allogeneic cell therapies is what it calls its “Engineered Thymic Niche” platform, Main said. Rather than take blood and extract the immune cells you want to give to a patient, Notch creates the immune cells from pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent essentially means the cell can be differentiated into any cell you want, Main said.
To do so, they’ve created an artificial thymus, which is a small organ near the sternum where T cells mature. A cell going through the thymus is exposed to a number of signals that turn it into an immune cell, Main explained.
The idea of using induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, to grow cells in a lab instead of extracting them from donors isn’t new. Johnson & Johnson inked an up to $3.1 billion deal with Fate Therapeutics back in April to work on iPSC-derived CAR-T and CAR-NK candidates. And Versant Ventures’ Century Therapeutics nabbed a meaty $250 million round in 2019 to advance iPSC products for cancer.
“People have known in science for many, many decades, how to differentiate stem cells and T cells, but they haven’t been able to do it outside of the test tube in a research library. Or if they tried to commercialize it that way they’re having to have thousands of petri dishes to make enough cells for therapy,” Main said.
With the so-called Engineered Thymic Niche platform, Notch says it can differentiate stem cells in a “highly controlled fashion,” using large scale batch reactors like the ones used to grow up antibodies or other proteins.
“We can be making, you know, billions of cells at a time,” Main said. “So really industrializing the production of cells,” he added later.
Notch — named after the signal that must be triggered to differentiate a stem cell into a T cell — is on the verge of hitting the first preclinical milestone in the Allogene deal, according to Main, though he declined to provide more detail on that program.
It’s also working on establishing itself in Seattle, in addition to its current Toronto and Vancouver bases. The purpose? To build a development team around newly hired senior vice president of preclinical translational sciences Chris Bond, who Notch poached from Kite.
Allogene chipped into the Series A, in addition to Lumira Ventures, and CCRM Enterprises Holdings, EcoR1 Capital, Casdin Capital, Samsara Capital, Amplitude Ventures and an undisclosed investment firm. Another undisclosed fund led the round.
Main called allogeneic cell therapies the “Holy Grail” of the field. By the time a patient and their doctor decide a cell therapy is the best approach, it often takes weeks, or sometimes months, to get the cells, purify them, grow them up, stimulate them and get them back to the patients, Main said. During that time, a patient’s disease can progress. Not to mention that it’s costly and labor intensive.
“What we think we’re going to be at is, we’ll be able to make the cells, have them cryopreserved sitting in a central dispensary somewhere, and as soon as they’re ordered, within hours they can be delivered and administered to the patient,” Main said.
He added later, “We think we bring that final piece … to really unlock the potential of cell therapy to being broadly applicable and being more drug-like.”