PureTech Health tends to form companies at the nexus of a few different disciplines, like music as a therapy or video games to help diagnose neurological disease. But today it’s gone the more traditional biotech route and formed an oncology company—specifically, a startup called Vor BioPharma trying to stand out in the competitive, fast-moving field of cell therapy for cancer.
The method that Vor’s focusing on, known as “CAR-T” therapy, has emerged as a promising treatment approach because of impressive early results against certain blood cancers. Companies like Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO), Novartis (NYSE: NVS), and Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE) extract white blood cells called T cells from a patient, engineer them into cancer killers, and unleash them into the body. French firm Cellectis (NASDAQ: CLLS) is advancing an “off-the-shelf” form of the treatment that has also shown some early promise.
There are some big questions surrounding CAR-T, however, among them whether it can be adapted for more common solid tumors, how scalable the technology is, and whether these treatments can be manufactured in a cost-effective fashion.
The treatments have side effects as well. Many of the leading CAR-T approaches create T cells that recognize a protein on the surface of cancerous B cells called CD19, and then attack. Those proteins are on healthy B cells as well, however, so these treatments are known to wipe out the cancerous and healthy B cells alike. They can also trigger an overdrive of the immune system known as “cytokine release syndrome.”
All of which goes to show the power, and current limitations of the first wave of CAR-T treatments, which could be headed towards FDA approval over the next few years. Many efforts are underway to advance the concept and expand CAR-T’s reach beyond blood cancers, and that’s where Vor aims to come in—though, at this point, it’s unclear exactly how.
So far, Vor is only speaking broadly. According to co-founder and PureTech senior associate Aleks Radovic-Moreno, the startup is developing several technologies aimed at “enabling a new strategy for targeting” cancer cells. This includes identifying “appropriate cellular target antigens”—the proteins these CAR-T cells home in on. It’s looking at different potentially therapeutic cell types, and “tools to maintain normal cell functionality.” Radovic-Moreno wouldn’t specify further, give any timelines, or say what type of cancer it’ll go after first. Much of the work that Vor is based on hasn’t been published as of yet, he says.
Vor was co-founded by Columbia University professor Siddhartha Mukherjee, best known for winning a Pulitzer Prize for the book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” Some other prominent names are associated with the company, among them chief scientific officer Joseph Bolen, the former president and CSO of Moderna Therapeutics; and scientific advisory board members Dan Littman (an NYU School of Medicine immunologist); Harvard Medical School stem cell biologist Derrick Rossi; and Stanford University radiologist and bioengineering professor Sanjiv Sam Gambhir.
Vor is the second startup formed by Boston-based PureTech this year, following Commense, which aims to build on research into the human microbiome—the trillions of bacteria that live in and on our bodies—to potentially protect babies born via C-section from the future onset of a variety of serious conditions.