Parker Institute backs an upstart biotech looking to develop a new, convertible CAR-T

The billionaire-backed Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy is investing and partnering with a biotech their researchers believe has the potential to develop a new-model CAR-T that can be better guided down narrow pathways and equipped with a convenient on/off switch to help avoid any fatal accidents.

Jeffrey Bluestone

Parker CEO Jeffrey Bluestone isn’t giving away any numbers right now, but he says the institute’s equity investment in Xyphos Biosciences “isn’t trivial.” The primary purpose of the investment — and the research alliance that plugs Xyphos into their network of prominent investigators — is to accelerate the work and prevent it from getting stuck in the R&D mud.

And I’m just getting started with the car metaphors, so buckle up.

What attracted Parker to the Bay Area immunotherapy player?

Generally speaking, it’s their work on convertible CAR-Ts, revolving around NKG2D receptors on several cell types, including T cells and NK killer cells that have fascinated the field. 

Using their protein engineering tech, the company crafted the natural NKG2D receptor to be inactive until it’s turned on by their bispecific antibody. One end of the bispecific binds to the receptors on the convertible CAR-T, with the other end designed to bind to the targeted malignant cell. Their collision is intended to crush the cancer cell.

There are several advantages to the approach, Bluestone tells me. The safety aspect is enhanced by the “regulated system” Xyphos is using. “You’re controlling to T cells: You can stop engaging the target” — and that off switch can be hit in the event of a sudden cytokine storm that can engulf a patient, a routine threat for the prototype CAR-Ts on the market.

These bispecifics can also target a cell sequentially, shifting targets when a patient starts to develop resistance, commonly leading to a relapse. And while the work is still preclinical, Parker’s investment is intended to push the team toward the clinic.

If it pans out, says Bluestone, they’ll have a best-in-class therapy able to go after a variety of solid tumors.

Parker has done a number of research alliances with biopharmas like Tessa, but steered only a few equity investments like this. They’ve backed the oncology imaging outfit ImaginAb and Tmunity, the startup from Penn’s Carl June and Oz Azam, and now Xyphos. There are also a few investments they’ve made which they’re still playing close to the vest.

They’re in for the long haul, with some near-term destinations in mind.

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