No More Fish or Fruit: Intrexon Turns SynBio Focus to Human Health

Xconomy National — 

Intrexon has spent two decades designing and building DNA sequences for applications in healthcare, food, energy, and the environment. Going forward, the synthetic biology company will focus exclusively on human health under the name of a subsidiary whose lead cell therapies are now in early-stage clinical testing in cancer.

Germantown, MD-based Intrexon (NASDAQ: XON) announced Thursday that it will change its name to Precigen, which is the cell and gene therapy business unit it formed in 2018. The non-healthcare businesses will be sold, most of them to Third Security, a venture capital firm helmed by Intrexon CEO Randal Kirk. Kirk, who has been chief executive of Intrexon since 2009, is stepping away to become executive chairman of the new Precigen, which will be led by president and CEO Helen Sabzevari. Sabzevari joined Intrexon in 2017 and has been president of the Precigen unit for the past two years.

Shares of Intrexon rose more than 5 percent after the company announced the changes. As part of the new corporate identity, Intrexon says it will change its stock symbol from “XON” to “PGEN.”

Intrexon’s Precigen unit aims to improve upon current cancer cell therapies with an approach that could offer manufacturing advantages and fewer side effects. Current CAR-T cancer cell therapies are made by engineering a patient’s own T cells to better recognize and fight cancer cells. These therapies use engineered viruses to deliver genetic material to the cells, adding a layer of manufacturing complexity. These cells must be multiplied in a lab before they can be re-infused into a patient. A small number of specialized facilities can make these therapies, so shipping to and from these sites lengthens the manufacturing process.

Precigen claims its manufacturing approach is faster. Rather than employing engineered viruses, the company uses proprietary technology that it says can transfer genetic material to precise locations in the genome of a patient’s cells. These cells don’t need to be multiplied in a lab. Instead, after these “UltraCAR-T” cells are infused into the patient, they multiply inside the body to address the cancer.

Experimental Precigen cell therapy PGRN-3005 is in Phase 1 testing in ovarian cancer. Another compound, PGRN-3006, is in Phase 1/1b testing for acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. In a November conference call to discuss the Precigen pipeline, Sabzevari reported that the company was able to produce its therapies and infuse them in patients at two different clinical trial sites, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. Preliminary data for both the PGRN-3005 and PGRN-3006 studies are expected in the second half of the year. Additional Precigen compounds for infectious diseases are in preclinical development; autoimmune compounds are in the discovery stage.

Intrexon signaled its intention to put more focus on Precigen in the fall. In the third quarter of 2019, the company closed its Animal Sciences Division and Cell Engineering Unit, and reached a deal to sell its stake in AquaBounty (NASDAQ: AQB), a Maynard, MA-based company that has FDA approval to market salmon genetically engineered for faster growth. In its third-quarter financial results, Intrexon said it was in discussions about the potential sale of unspecified business units. The company also said that its CEO had made a non-binding offer to acquire the non-healthcare assets. Intrexon aimed to finish 2019 with $175 million in cash, which it said would be applied toward its healthcare focus.

The asset sales announced Thursday bring Intrexon to its cash target, according to the company. The deal with Third Security calls for the investment firm to pay $53 million and purchase $35 million of Intrexon common stock. Third Security gets Intrexon’s Ag Biotech Division, Intrexon Produce Holdings (which owns the company that commercialized the non-browning Arctic apple), holdings in Hungary and the UK, equity stakes in antibiotics developer Oragenics and cannabis products company Surterra Wellness, and the domain name The Third Security deal is expected to close on Jan. 31, but the agreement allows Intrexon to seek higher offers. Intrexon is also selling its stake in animal feed company EnviroFlight to Darling Ingredients for $12.2 million.

In addition to the therapies in Precigen’s pipeline, the new Precigen will encompass two other Intrexon healthcare subsidiaries: ActoBio Therapeutics and Exemplar Genetics, and a majority stake in cardiovascular gene-therapy developer Triple-Gene. For now, two non-healthcare businesses will remain with the new Precigen: methane bioconversion business MBP Titan and bovine genetics company Trans Ova Genetics. Intrexon says it will continue to evaluate its options for those businesses.

Image from the National Cancer Institute