Bellicum CEO Reflects on Rise From Baylor to Houston Biotech Darling

Xconomy Texas — 

The Houston biotech community welcomed Bellicum Pharmaceuticals at a BioHouston breakfast Wednesday, one of the first public events for its executives since the life sciences company went public in a $140 million offering late last year.

More than 100 people crowded an events room at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative building to hear Bellicum CEO Tom Farrell talk about the company’s founding from Baylor College of Medicine technology in 2004 and how different parts of Houston’s biotech community provided help and advice along its commercialization path.

Today, the company has 40 employees and two drug candidates in Phase 1 or 2 clinical trials in both Europe and the U.S., with a few other candidates in development.

It has been a long time since Houston has seen such a high-profile success in biotech. Bellicum was the region’s first life sciences company to go public in about 15 years. (Tanox, a maker of an allergic asthma treatment, went public in 2000 and was bought by Genentech for $919 million six years later.)

Still, that drought played no role when Bellicum executives were on the Wall Street roadshow prior to the IPO, Farrell says. “We never had one question along the lines of, why Houston?” he says. “It was not an issue. If you’ve got the right story and the right team, being in Houston does not need to be a barrier to success.”

Bellicum is one of a group of companies developing a particular type of cancer immunotherapy in which a patient’s own T cells are extracted, genetically modified, and then inserted back into the patient with a new protein that helps them find and kill cancer cells. The approach is called chimeric antigen receptor therapy, or CAR-T, and it’s generated significant buzz because of impressive—but early—results treating certain leukemias and lymphomas.

Others competing in this space include Seattle’s Juno Therapeutics; Carl June’s group at the University of Pennsylvania, which is collaborating with Novartis; Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), via a deal with Cambridge, MA-based gene therapy company Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE); and Santa Monica, CA-based Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE). In addition, Pfizer has a deal with Cellectis in Paris to tap into its CAR-T work. And Unum Therapeutics, a new startup from Atlas Venture, is also developing its own approach to T-cell therapy for cancer.

Bellicum’s leading drug candidate, BPX-501, is used in stem cell transplants to treat leukemia and lymphoma. 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. It can fight the cells that cause graft versus host (GVH) disease by killing those cells should they appear. Bellicum’s second therapy, BPX-201, is a vaccine that consists of dendritic cells that are programmed to fight prostate cancer. (The vaccine is made from the patient’s own white blood cells.)

Farrell says he expects topline data for BPX-501, which is in a phase 1/2 trial, to be available before the end of the year. In the meantime, the company is planning on hiring another 30 people or so.

“When cellular immunotherapy took off, we were in position to take advantage in that space,” Farrell says. “It’s been a great ride to this point but, in many respects, it’s really just getting started.”

Bellicum’s successful public debut comes as Texas lawmakers are considering dismantling taxpayer-funded programs that Farrell says played a crucial role in the company’s development. In particular, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said he wants to end the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which has provided capital to companies like Bellicum since its founding in 2005. Bellicum received $1.45 million from the fund in 2007. (The company also received $5.7 million from another taxpayer-funded program, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, in 2011.)

“At $1.45 million dollars, it’s small money, but at the time was significant,” Farrell says. “It gave our investors some reassurance someone else had taken a look at this and found it worthy of investment. … I can tell you categorically that, without it, we would not be here.”