CAR-T, Startups

Rising Penn star Saar Gill gets funding for a next-gen CAR-T startup, adding a new weapon to the mix

Earlier this month, the University of Pennsylvania’s Saar Gill turned up at ASCO to present new data demonstrating that a combination of Imbruvica with Novartis’ next-gen CAR-T CTL119 proved very effective in treating particularly lethal cases of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, wiping out all signs of the disease in 8 of 9 treatment-resistant patients enrolled in an exploratory study.

But Gill’s been particularly busy on the CAR-T front, and not just in new research work. He’s also been enlisting some marquee investors on a new startup project that will aim at making a major new advance in the field.

Closely involved with CAR-T headliner Carl June in Penn’s pioneering work with Novartis, which is now racing toward a likely first approval, Gill’s startup is promising to combine the proven efficacy of reengineered T cells with macrophages, another weapon in the fight against cancer that could add to the fire power of the first CAR-Ts with a special focus on a challenging frontier: solid tumors.

“We hypothesized early on that focusing on different effector cells, other than T cells, might be more effective in trying to tackle solid tumors, which has been a challenge for T cell therapies. The innate biology drove us to try macrophages,” Gill says.

CAR-T’s first and best application has been centered on liquid tumors, with some major obstacles to overcome in expanding into solid tumors. Now Gill has some unspecified support in a new round led by AbbVie Ventures and HealthCap with participation by Grazia Equity and IP Group.

Gill’s company is called CARMA — a playful abbreviation of the chimeric antigen receptors added to T cells in CAR-T along with macrophages — and it’s identified a lead drug called CARMA-0508.

“Macrophages can engulf and kill cells through the process of phagocytosis. By genetically engineering these cells with CARs, we can specifically direct them to tumor cells, such as ovarian cancer cells,” says co-founder Michael Klichinsky, a PhD candidate in the department of systems pharmacology and translational therapeutics at the University of Pennsylvania, in a prepared statement. “Our pre-clinical data support our hypothesis and show targeted, selective and effective killing of solid tumor cells by CARMA. In addition, we expect that CAR macrophages will prime a T cell immune response against the tumor.”

CARMA isn’t the only new company to get started out of Penn looking to play a big role in CAR-T’s second act. June also launched Tmunity Therapeutics, another cell therapy company, recruiting Novartis’ Usman ‘Oz’ Azam to take the lead role at the company late last year.


Image: Saar Gill at ASCO 2017 via ASH on YouTube


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RAPS Regulatory Convergence 2017