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Bellicum CEO Reflects on Rise From Baylor to Houston Biotech Darling

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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.”

 

 

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