MPM, DCVC Bio back $53M round for a bold concept: Let patients make their own CAR-T in vivo
The onerous process of making a personalized CAR-T — one that involves extracting cells from patients, engineering and then injecting them back — is one of the defining features of the first generation of engineered cell therapies. It’s partly why the treatments are so expensive; it’s also an inspiration for new allogeneic approaches that promise to be faster and cheaper.
But a biotech startup in Seattle wants to go further.
Umoja Biopharma is starting out with $53 million in Series A cash to test whether a lentiviral vector delivered directly in vivo can generate a population of T cells that expand and fight cancer just as well as the externally manufactured ones do.
“So we don’t actually have to manufacture the cells,” co-founder and CEO Andy Scharenberg told Endpoints News. “We’re gonna be effectively making a complex biologic.”
Scharenberg, who’s explored multiple ways to do gene transfer through the years at places like Cellectis and Generation Bio, highlighted the “incredible safety record” of lentiviral vectors and their ability to not just transduce but also integrate the genomic payload into daughter cells. Because the resulting CAR-T would expand in a way that replicates a natural immune response, he also foresees few of the side effects, such as cytokine release syndrome, that patients experience with Kymriah and Yescarta.
A second technology utilizes small molecules to control and tune these self-generated CAR-T cells following a single administration. And Umoja has lined up an additional tech platform to push it into solid tumors by tagging cancer cells for recognition by T cells.
Bringing all three approaches and the respective experts under the same roof is a key idea behind Umoja — a Swahili word for “unity.”
“In many ways the scientific concept underlying the company is a little bit summarized in that word,” Scharenberg said. “In order to have a really impactful approach to advancing immunotherapies, you need to integrate multiple technology platforms.”
With Michael Jensen of Seattle Children’s and Philip Low of Purdue University on board as co-founders, Umoja plans to pursue parallel development paths for the in vivo gene delivery and tumor tag technologies, which the CEO describes as two sides of the same coin. Jensen will lead a collaboration to evaluate the tumor tag approach among children with osteosarcoma in the coming year. Meanwhile, Umoja will get ready to put its initial CAR-T hitting a familiar target — CD19 — in the clinic.
If “things go really well,” Scharenberg sees the company stacking the two approaches for a more potent effect in the 2023, 2024 time frame.
MPM Capital and DCVC Bio seeded the company, with Qiming Venture Partners USA joining to co-lead the Series A.
As cellular immunotherapies gradually move from their current applications toward the frontline — something Scharenberg envisions — he sees the scale and accessibility being his company’s key mantra.
“When we think about what Umoja aspires to be as an organization, it’s not only to advance and make immunotherapies that are more effective against all tumors,” he said, “but also to make them accessible and to alleviate some of the economic toxicities that are associated with the cost of some of the current therapies as well.”