Third Rock seeds cell therapy startup with $95M in bid to cure MS
In 2018, former Biogen executives Samantha Singer and Richard Ransohoff were working with Third Rock on a new way to treat autoimmune diseases when one of the VC’s partners asked what Ransohoff thought of a wildly different approach to tackling those bedeviling disorders.
Third Rock wanted to build a company that would turn a protective class of immune cells called regulatory T cells into therapies, and another team had spent the last year and a half trying to find the best condition it would work for. Finally, they settled on multiple sclerosis, a disease Ransohoff had studied for three decades as an academic. They wanted his opinion: What do you think?
“I said I don’t think anything,” Ransohoff recalled. But he began reading their data and wondering about patients with the most advanced forms of MS, those whose symptoms gradually progress.
“There was actually a eureka moment,” he told Endpoints News. It was “the only thing I could think of that might benefit [these] people.”
In time, Singer and Ransohoff’s first project would fizzle, the vision proving too early for its era, and the pair would set about turning the cell therapy idea into a company, enlisting top academics as founders and hiring out a team. The startup, Abata Therapeutics, emerged from stealth Wednesday with $95 million in a Third Rock-led Series A round, three programs and a plan to be in the clinic by 2025.
Abata relies on regulatory T cells. The bouncers of the immune system, they recognize the body’s own proteins and tell other immune cells not to attack when they see cells studded with those receptors.
In autoimmune disorders, though, that system goes awry; the immune system attacks healthy cells. Abata is betting it can correct by taking a patients’ own regulatory T cells — sometimes called Tregs — and equipping them with a receptor for the protein that the body is attacking. In MS, with the help of some other tweaks, those cells would settle into the central nervous system and pump out no-go signals to the rest of the immune arsenal.
The goal, Singer said, would be to not only prevent further damage but also allow the nervous system to regenerate the myelin sheaths that patients lose during the course of the disease.
A Treg’s “native job is to prevent autoimmunity,” Singer told Endpoints News. This is “in some ways, very much leveraging the natural abilities of the cell.”
Singer will serve as the company’s permanent CEO, her first chief gig after a pair of at top operating positions at Biogen and the Broad Institute. Ransohoff will serve as CMO.
Abata is one of a small handful of startups that have cropped over the past two years to bring cell therapy into autoimmune diseases, joining Sonoma, GentiBio, and Orca Bio, among others. None have presented much data so far, though, and the field remains nascent, compared to cell therapies for cancer or, in the autoimmune field, antibodies and bispecifics — the approach that has generated the most venture and pharma backing in the past half-decade.
They’ll look to keep an edge in part through a partnership with David Hallal’s Elevate Bio to manufacture their cell therapies. They now have 15 employees, with plans to double it by the end of the year.
In multiple sclerosis, they will start by testing the therapy on the most severe patients, where they hope the drug could provide a one-time cure. Beyond MS, Abata is developing Treg treatments for type 1 diabetes and inclusion body myositis, a painless muscle-wasting disease.