AstraZeneca Puts Up $200M in Solid Bet on Startup’s Take on Cancer Cell Therapy

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Cell therapy has broken new therapeutic ground, but the progress of this drug class in blood cancers has yet to be realized in solid tumors. Big pharmaceutical companies and upstart biotechs are trying various approaches to broaden the scope of these cancer treatments and AstraZeneca is now joining them by buying a startup with technology for developing a new type of personalized cell therapy.

AstraZeneca said Tuesday it has agreed to pay $200 million up front to acquire Neogene Therapeutics, a company that earlier this year received the regulatory green light to begin the first human test of its cell therapy. Another $120 million is tied to the achievement of milestones. The companies expect to close the deal in the first quarter of 2023.

The first cell therapies were made by harvesting a patient’s own T cells and engineering them in a lab to address a target on cancer cells. The cell therapies of Neogene are also highly personalized. The biotech takes a patient’s T cells and engineers them to target neoantigens, novel targets found exclusively on cancer cells due to cancer-associated DNA mutations. Whereas the first generation of cell therapies go after targets on the tumor surface, Neogene, which maintains operations in Amsterdam and Santa Monica, California, claims its T cell receptor-therapies (TCR-Ts) can recognize targets inside a tumor. By addressing previously inaccessible targets, Neogene says its cell therapies can address solid tumors.

A Neogene TCR-T starts with a biopsy of a patient’s tumor. DNA sequencing along with other genomics tools are used to identify the neoantigens of a tumor as well as the genes that code for their receptors. Those genes are introduced into a patient’s T cells, enabling them to recognize a patient’s tumors. But rather than addressing a single target, a Neogene TCR-T will span multiple tumor neoantigens to spark a broader T cell response against the cancer. In a prepared statement, Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca’s executive vice president of oncology R&D, said Neogene’s capability to discover TCRs complements the cell therapy capability it has built over the last three years.

Neogene’s founders have deep cell therapy experience. The company was founded in 2018 by Ton Schumacher and Carsten Linneman. The duo had previously founded T-Cell Factory, a company that developed technology that discovers tumor-specific T cell receptors. Kite Pharma acquired T-Cell Factory in 2015. Kite’s Yescarta became the second CAR T cell therapy to win FDA approval in 2017, the same year that Gilead Sciences struck an $11.9 billion deal to acquire Kite. Neogene has Kite connections. The startup’s investors include Kite founder and former CEO Arie Belldegrun; David Chang, another former Kite executive, is also a Neogene investor. Neogene disclosed more details about its pedigree and its technology in 2020, when it unveiled a $110 million Series A round of financing. At that time, Linneman told me he estimated clinical testing was two years away.

AstraZeneca’s deal to acquire Neogene comes as the biotech moves its research into clinical testing with its lead program, NT-125. This cell therapy is designed to carry up to five neoantigen-specific TCRs, which together limit the opportunity for a tumor to escape the treatment. Dutch authorities cleared Neogene’s application to begin a Phase 1 test in May. That study, which will be done in partnership with the Netherlands Cancer Institute, is designed to enroll adults with various types of solid tumors.

The broader field of TCR therapies is making progress and growing. Adaptimmune’s work in TCRs has led to alliances with GSK, Astellas, and Roche. In August, startup 3T Biosciences emerged with $40 million and technology licensed from Stanford that screens for TCRs that are specific to cancer cells. South San Francisco-based 3T aims to reach the clinic by 2024.

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