Houston’s Bellicum Nets $55M to Boost Trials for Cancer Treatment

Xconomy Texas — 

Houston biotech firm Bellicum Pharmaceuticals announced Wednesday it has raised $55 million in a Series C financing.

Bellicum said 11 biotech and public mutual funds participated in the round, including RA Capital Management, Perceptive Advisors, Jennison Associates, and others. All of Bellicum’s previous investors, including AVG Ventures and Remeditex Ventures, joined in this fundraising as well.

Bellicum is developing immunotherapies that allow the suppression or activation of cells administered to patients with leukemia, lymphoma, or pancreatic cancers. Each therapy is based on core technology that allows physicians to control the cells after they’ve been administered to the patient.

For example, BPX-501 is used in stem cell transplants to treat leukemia and lymphoma. Essentially, the drug is designed with a cell-suicide mechanism that can be triggered to force it to kill cells gone rogue, making a currently risky cancer treatment safer for patients. “The product allows the physician to not have to worry about graft versus host (GVH) disease,” says Tom Farrell, Bellicum’s CEO. “The cells can be eliminated in the event that GVH occurs.”

The second drug candidate, BPX-201, is a vaccine consisting of dendritic cells programmed to fight prostate cancer. The vaccine is made from the patient’s own white blood cells.

In both drugs, the immune system’s cells are implanted with technology that essentially embeds an on/off switch inside the cell. A triggering drug, AP1903, flips the switch on, kicking in the desired effect at the right time. That delayed deployment is meant to increase the drug’s potency.

“Each is a different embodiment of the switch technology,” Farrell says. “One is the switch that eliminates the cell, and the other is the switch that activates the cell.”

The funding will be used to expand ongoing clinical trials for the two drug candidates. BPX-501 is currently being tested in phase I/II clinical trials. A couple of dozen patients are currently enrolled in the trials, and Farrell says that the company hopes to have as many as 150 patients by the end of next year. BPX-201 is being evaluated in a phase I trial with about 11 patients.

Funds will also be used to further develop a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy that incorporates the safety switch to “dim down rather than completely eliminate the cells” to reduce toxicity, Farrell says. He added that the drug has only been developed through animal trials, but the company intends to set up clinical trials for this therapy as well.

The company was founded in 2004 by Baylor College of Medicine professors David Spencer and Kevin Slawin. Farrell joined the company in 2006. Bellicum now has 30 employees.

The company closed a Series B round in January and has raised $107 million in total. Bellicum was also one of the first recipients of funding from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, which awarded the firm $6.2 million.

For Farrell, this latest funding round is significant considering the difficult investment environment for early-stage biotech firms in Texas. “That’s an important object lesson there that it can be done,” he added. “It’s not easy, but I think once you break through and establish credibility with investors, there is a lot of capital in the state that can be tapped into.”