Scientists have made strides in creating cell therapies that treat and sometimes even cure blood cancers, and are working to expand these treatments to other cancers as well. But over the past couple years, a number of biotech firms have emerged with plans to design cell therapies for an entirely different swath of diseases: autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
One of those firms, Cambridge startup GentiBio, announced a new partnership with pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb on Wednesday to develop cell therapies that quell the runaway immune response in the guts of people with inflammatory bowel diseases, which include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
In addition to an undisclosed upfront payment, GentiBio could earn up to $1.9 billion from milestone payments in the collaboration, plus royalties, making it one of the biggest bets yet on a company developing cell therapies for common diseases rather than cancer.
Dr. Adel Nada, cofounder and chief executive of GentiBio, said that by 2030 as many as 3.5 million people could be living with inflammatory bowel diseases. “We’re excited to work with a well-established partner such as BMS, given the size of the indication and given the potential impact,” Nada said.
Commercial cell therapies for cancer are currently used to treat hundreds to thousands of patients a year. These approved cell therapies, and the vast majority of experimental ones, are turbocharged killing machines. The T cells are engineered to make a synthetic protein called a chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR, that guides the cell to seek and destroy cancer cells.
GentiBio’s cell therapies will take a more subtle approach. Rather than using T cells designed for killing, the company will use regulatory T cells that specialize in controlling inflammation in our bodies.
In some diseases, these regulatory T cells become complacent and let inflammation run rampant. GentiBio and BMS will engineer these cells to hone in on inflammation in the intestines, tamp down the out-of-control immune responses, and kickstart the healing process, Nada explained.
GentiBio is tweaking the cells so that they stay committed to suppressing inflammation even if the other signals in the body tell them to stand down. The company is also engineering its T cells to respond to a pill that Nada said will act like a “remote control” allowing doctors to increase or decrease the response.
Commercial CAR T cell therapies are made from cells that are collected from a patient’s blood, engineered in the lab, and reinfused. Regulatory T cells are relatively rare in the body, so the company is working on ways to grow them from stem cells in the lab. That ‘off-the-shelf’ approach could be crucial for making the therapy more accessible to the millions of people with inflammatory bowel disease.
The startup has raised $178 million since it launched in August 2020, Nada said, including a $157 million series A disclosed a year ago. Sonoma Biotherapeutics, a South San Francisco startup developing regulatory T cell therapies for inflammatory bowel disease and other conditions, has raised more than $335 million since its founding in 2019. Other companies, including Abata Therapeutics, Quell Therapeutics, Sangamo Therapeutics, are developing therapies based on the cells as well.
GentiBio’s approximately 90 employees are roughly split between a lab and office space by the Alewife MBTA Station in Cambridge and at another site in Seattle, where much of the company’s science originated. The startup is based on research from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle, and MIGAL Galilee Research Institute in Israel.