Launched by MIT grads, a small start­up gets $20M to back a ro­bot­ics rev­o­lu­tion in cell ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing

As co-di­rec­tor of an ex­per­i­men­tal cel­lu­lar ther­a­py process de­vel­op­ment and man­u­fac­tur­ing group at UCSF spe­cial­iz­ing in T cell ther­a­pies for au­toim­mune con­di­tions, Jonathan Es­en­sten has learned a lot about the chal­lenges in­volved when his group hand-fash­ions a cell ther­a­py. Es­en­sten — who was a post­doc in Wen­dell Lim’s lab and counts the leg­endary Jef­frey Blue­stone as a men­tor — gives them all high marks at be­ing great at what they do, but time and again there are vari­a­tions in the treat­ments they con­struct.

And that’s a prob­lem.

Jonathan Es­en­sten

Es­en­sten can’t of­fer any da­ta, and these are high­ly trained in­di­vid­u­als we’re talk­ing about, but “my in­tu­ition is that small dif­fer­ences in tech­nique can make a dif­fer­ence in the out­come of a cell ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing run,” he says.

As any­one in bio­phar­ma can tell you, vari­a­tions in ther­a­peu­tic out­put are not OK. You want to set a stan­dard and hit it every time.

So when Fred Pari­et­ti came in a cou­ple of years ago to take a first-hand look at what they were do­ing at UCSF and see for him­self what cell ther­a­py man­u­fac­tur­ing was all about, they got to talk­ing.

It wasn’t just that there were vari­a­tions in the prod­uct, Es­en­sten says. It’s ex­pen­sive to get a trained group to­geth­er. Hard­er to pre­vent them from be­ing raid­ed by the grow­ing mul­ti­tude of biotechs in the area, who find it easy to beat a uni­ver­si­ty salary.

For Pari­et­ti, who joined a band of MIT grads and jour­neyed to the Bay Area to launch a ro­bot­ics up­start called Mul­ti­ply Labs, it was an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and one that led to a unique al­liance. Now Pari­et­ti’s start­up is fund­ing work in Es­en­sten’s group to de­vel­op a ro­bot­ic sys­tem to do that work — an ap­proach that he feels has near-term com­mer­cial po­ten­tial.

And af­ter rais­ing $5 mil­lion in seed cash to get them go­ing, he’s won over some key con­verts. The team at Mul­ti­ply can now boast of a $20 mil­lion fol­lowup round to get the prod­uct through test­ing and in­to the hands of an in­dus­try he feels is ripe for this kind of pre­ci­sion man­u­fac­tur­ing tech as cell ther­a­pies boom.

Cas­din Cap­i­tal led the round, with new in­vestors Lux Cap­i­tal and Pathfind­er, Founders Fund’s ear­ly stage in­vest­ment ve­hi­cle, al­so par­tic­i­pat­ing along with seed in­vestors Fifty Years and Garage Cap­i­tal.

Fred Pari­et­ti

Mul­ti­ply got start­ed man­u­fac­tur­ing a ro­bot­ics sys­tem that can make cus­tom de­signed pills, of­ten us­ing spe­cif­ic com­bos — a grow­ing fea­ture in the man­u­fac­tur­ing world. Once they get their new sys­tem set up for cell ther­a­pies, Pari­et­ti al­so be­lieves that there are a num­ber of play­ers in the cell ther­a­py field that can see the ad­van­tage of us­ing ro­bots in place of peo­ple, work­ing 24/7, with­out any vari­a­tions in tech­nique. With no pen­chant for mak­ing mis­takes. And no new salary de­mands.

“Es­sen­tial­ly the cell ther­a­py process­es are all lab process­es adapt­ed for GMP, but they were nev­er cre­at­ed to scale … ,” he says. “Peo­ple make mis­takes. That’s the de­f­i­n­i­tion of peo­ple.”

“The peo­ple are the biggest dan­ger for the drug,” Pari­et­ti adds. “In cell ther­a­py you want to pro­tect the drug from the peo­ple, not the peo­ple from the drug … Our job is to make stuff ef­fi­cient and au­to­mat­ed.”

It’s al­so a ques­tion of ef­fi­cien­cy, which re­volves around what Pari­et­ti calls par­al­lelism. With au­to­mat­ed sys­tems, you can con­tin­u­ous­ly use mul­ti­ple biore­ac­tors in par­al­lel. With peo­ple, or the al­ter­na­tive sys­tems on the mar­ket that Es­en­sten points to, biore­ac­tors have to be seg­re­gat­ed in in­di­vid­ual spaces to avoid cross con­t­a­m­i­na­tion.

That’s a big job, but Mul­ti­ply is still small, with 10 peo­ple plus an­oth­er 5 con­sul­tants. That should grow sig­nif­i­cant­ly with the cur­rent ven­ture round.

The in­spi­ra­tion for the team start­ed at MIT, where Pari­et­ti, who was work­ing on ex­oskele­tons in the ro­bot­ics group, met up with Al­ice Me­loc­chi, who was de­vot­ed to health­care sys­tems. To­geth­er, they built a team that tar­get­ed man­u­al drug man­u­fac­tur­ing, get­ting a foothold with their cap­sule tech. Now they feel equipped to go af­ter a much more am­bi­tious tar­get in cell ther­a­pies.

ZS Per­spec­tive: 3 Pre­dic­tions on the Fu­ture of Cell & Gene Ther­a­pies

The field of cell and gene therapies (C&GTs) has seen a renaissance, with first generation commercial therapies such as Kymriah, Yescarta, and Luxturna laying the groundwork for an incoming wave of potentially transformative C&GTs that aim to address diverse disease areas. With this renaissance comes several potential opportunities, of which we discuss three predictions below.

Allogenic Natural Killer (NK) Cells have the potential to displace current Cell Therapies in oncology if proven durable.

Despite being early in development, Allogenic NKs are proving to be an attractive new treatment paradigm in oncology. The question of durability of response with allogenic therapies is still an unknown. Fate Therapeutics’ recent phase 1 data for FT516 showed relatively quicker relapses vs already approved autologous CAR-Ts. However, other manufacturers, like Allogene for their allogenic CAR-T therapy ALLO-501A, are exploring novel lymphodepletion approaches to improve persistence of allogenic cells. Nevertheless, allogenic NKs demonstrate a strong value proposition relative to their T cell counterparts due to comparable response rates (so far) combined with the added advantage of a significantly safer AE profile. Specifically, little to no risk of graft versus host disease (GvHD), cytotoxic release syndrome (CRS), and neurotoxicity (NT) have been seen so far with allogenic NK cells (Fig. 1). In addition, being able to harness an allogenic cell source gives way to operational advantages as “off-the-shelf” products provide improved turnaround time (TAT), scalability, and potentially reduced cost. NKs are currently in development for a variety of overlapping hematological indications with chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-Ts) today, and the question remains to what extent they will disrupt the current cell therapy landscape. Click for more details.

Graphic: Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

What kind of biotech start­up wins a $3B syn­di­cate, woos a gallery of mar­quee sci­en­tists and re­cruits GSK's Hal Bar­ron as CEO in a stun­ner? Let Rick Klaus­ner ex­plain

It started with a question about a lifetime’s dream on a walk with tech investor Yuri Milner.

At the beginning of the great pandemic, former NCI chief and inveterate biotech entrepreneur Rick Klausner and the Facebook billionaire would traipse Los Altos Hills in Silicon Valley Saturday mornings and talk about ideas.

Milner’s question on one of those mornings on foot: “What do you want to do?”

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FDA+ roundup: FDA's neu­ro­science deputy de­parts amid on­go­ing Aduhelm in­ves­ti­ga­tions; Califf on the ropes?

Amid increased scrutiny into the close ties between FDA and Biogen prior to the controversial accelerated approval of Aduhelm, the deputy director of the FDA’s office of neuroscience has called it quits after more than two decades at the agency.

Eric Bastings will now take over as VP of development strategy at Ionis Pharmaceuticals, the company said Wednesday, where he will provide senior clinical and regulatory leadership in support of Ionis’ pipeline.

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Sec­ondary patents prove to be key in biosim­i­lar block­ing strate­gies, re­searchers find

While the US biosimilars industry has generally been a disappointment since its inception, with FDA approving 33 biosimilars since 2015, just a fraction of those have immediately followed their approvals with launches. And more than a handful of biosimilars for two of the biggest blockbusters of all time — AbbVie’s Humira and Amgen’s Enbrel — remain approved by FDA but still have not launched because of legal settlements.

Hal Barron (GSK via YouTube)

GSK R&D chief Hal Bar­ron jumps ship to run a $3B biotech start­up, Tony Wood tapped to re­place him

In a stunning switch, GlaxoSmithKline put out word early Wednesday that R&D chief Hal Barron is exiting the company after 4 years — a relatively brief run for the man chosen by CEO Emma Walmsley in late 2017 to turn around the slow-footed pharma giant.

Barron is being replaced by Tony Wood, a close associate of Barron’s who’s taking one of the top jobs in Big Pharma R&D. He’ll be closer to home, though, for GSK. Barron has been running a UK and Philadelphia-based research organization from his perch in San Francisco.

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Chamath Palihapitiya and Pablo Legorreta

Bil­lion­aires Chamath Pal­i­hapi­tiya and Pablo Legor­re­ta hatch an $825M SPAC for cell ther­a­py biotech

Three years after Royalty Pharma chief Pablo Legorreta led a group of investors to buy up a pair of biotechs and create a new startup called ProKidney, the biotech is jumping straight into an $825 million public shell created by SPAC king and tech billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya.

ProKidney was founded 6 years ago but really got going at the beginning of 2019 with the $62 million acquisition of inRegen, which was working on an autologous — from the patient — cell therapy for kidney disease. After extracting kidney cells from patients, researchers expand the cells in the lab and then inject them back into patients, aiming to restore the kidneys of patients suffering from CKD.

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CBO: Medicare ne­go­ti­a­tions will ham­per drug de­vel­op­ment more than pre­vi­ous­ly thought

As President Biden’s Build Back Better Act — and, with it, potentially the Democrats’ last shot at major drug pricing reforms in the foreseeable future — remains on life support, the Congressional Budget Office isn’t helping their case.

The CBO last week released a new slide deck, outlining an update to its model on how Medicare negotiations might take a bite out of new drugs making it to market. The new model estimates a 10% long-term reduction in the number of new drugs, whereas a previous CBO report from August estimated that 8% fewer new drugs will enter the market over 30 years.

Joshua Brumm, Dyne Therapeutics CEO

FDA or­ders DMD tri­al halt, rais­ing ques­tions about a whole class of promis­ing drugs

Dyne Therapeutics’ stock took a nasty hit this morning after the biotech put out word that the FDA had slapped a clinical hold on their top program for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. And now speculation is bouncing around Biotwitter that there could be a class effect at work here that would implicate other drug developers in the freeze.

Dyne execs didn’t have a whole lot to say about why the FDA sidelined their IND for DYNE-251 in DMD while “requesting additional clinical and non-clinical information for” the drug.

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CEO Lex Rovner (64x Bio)

A George Church spin­out fight­ing the vi­ral vec­tor bot­tle­neck in cell and gene ther­a­py lands $55M

A synthetic biology company spun out of George Church’s lab is set to tackle the gene therapy manufacturing bottleneck, and it just landed $55 million in a Series A financing round to do so.

64x Bio comes out of the Harvard Department of Genetics. CEO Lex Rovner and her team — which right now, sits around 10 people — are looking to tackle a key hurdle for major companies: manufacturing cell and gene therapies.