Cell therapies are made by tinkering with a patient’s immune cells so that they can better recognize and destroy cancer cells. These drugs give patients another treatment option for certain cancers that haven’t responded to anything else. ArsenalBio CEO Ken Drazan aims to take cell therapy even further.
Arsenal is developing technology that adds capabilities to a cell therapy similar to the way a software programmer stacks new functions on a computer program. Improving the way a therapy finds its cancer target is one way Arsenal could “program” a cell, Drazan says. On top of that, a capability could be added to stop a therapy’s damaging effects from hitting healthy tissue. Another feature might overcome a cancer’s mechanisms for suppressing the immune system. According to Drazan, immune cells can be programmed and controlled with certainty.
“That’s what programmable means,” he says. “You have the intent and you know you can execute on those functions.”
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South San Francisco-based Arsenal is launching Thursday with an $85 million Series A round of funding. Investors include Westlake Village BioPartners; the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI); Kleiner Perkins; the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Foundation Investment Company, Euclidean Capital, and Osage University Partners.
The first generation of cell therapies are still relatively new to the market. In 2017, Novartis (NYSE: NVS) and Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) won the first FDA approvals for drugs called chimeric-antigen receptor T cell therapies, or CAR-T for short. The approvals covered leukemias that have not responded to other treatments. The drug makers produce their CAR-T therapies by using a virus to insert the genetic instructions that tell a patient’s T cells how to attack his or her cancer cells. But those viruses have limited payloads, and that’s one way Arsenal aims to stand apart.
Arsenal says its technology can carry a larger DNA payload than the viruses used to make CAR-T drugs. That means an Arsenal cell therapy can be engineered with more instructions that enable it to do more things. Key to Arsenal’s approach is the capability to insert gene sequences in specific locations. That’s important because many functions in the genome depend on proximity to one or more gene sequences, Drazan says.
Besides better targeting of cancer cells and improved safety, the company says its technology could direct immune cells to treat both solid tumors and blood cancers. The Novartis and Gilead CAR-T therapies treat only blood cancers. Depending on the cancer, Arsenal’s therapies could be autologous, meaning that they are developed from a patient’s own immune cells, or allogeneic, meaning that they are produced from a healthy donor’s cells.
“The opportunity here is to think about the cancer patient and the cancer itself as a multidimensional problem you want to solve for,” Drazan says.
Arsenal isn’t the only biotech developing ways to program cells. Last month, Boston synthetic biology startup Ginkgo Bioworks raised $290 million to support its efforts to write genetic code that programs cells for a variety of applications. The Boston company got its start engineering microbes used to make flavors and fragrances but has since expanded its scope to pharmaceuticals, agricultural products, and more. The company says that the programmable cells it is developing would be used in a wide range of industries.
Meanwhile, Senti Biosciences of South San Francisco is developing technology that rewrites the genetic code of a cell for therapeutic applications. For example, a Senti drug could coax a cell to produce a therapeutic protein. Senti, which calls itself a “gene circuit company,” is focusing on metabolic and immune system disorders. When the company raised $53 million in Series A financing last year, CEO Tim Lu said the goal was to reach human testing within three years.
Arsenal’s approach to developing programmable cell therapies is the product of different technologies, such as gene editing and computational biology, that come from several medical and academic institutions across the country. Beth Seidenberg, founding managing director of Westlake Village Bio, said in an email that the various technologies that comprise Arsenal’s approach might sometimes be seen as competing with each other. “The magic here is it is the first time we have been able to bring these major factors together,” she wrote.
Researchers at the academic and medical institutions had been collaborating for years, many of them as investigators at PICI, Drazan says. Arsenal will use the capital infusion to scale their initial research and potentially develop new medicines. Drazan says the company is working on programming its first drug candidates, which he hopes reach tests in humans “in the next few years.”