AstraZeneca Teams Up With Startup Quell in Type 1 Diabetes, IBD Cell Therapy Pact

AstraZeneca’s drug research strategy includes developing new medicines that address underlying causes of disease. Autoimmune disorders are one area of strategic focus, and the pharmaceutical giant is now turning to a cell therapy startup to begin a collaboration that could yield new treatments intended to stop immune responses driving two prevalent inflammatory conditions.

Under terms of the agreement announced Friday, London-based Quell Therapeutics will use its proprietary technology to develop cell therapy candidates for type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. AstraZeneca has the option to further develop and commercialize those cell therapies. The pharma giant will pay Quell Therapeutics $85 million up front to begin the alliance, a sum that includes cash and an equity investment in the startup. No details about the breakdown of that payment were disclosed.

The cell therapies of Quell are based on regulatory T cells, or Tregs. Unlike immune cells that cause inflammation, Tregs play a counterbalancing role by tamping down inflammatory responses. Quell’s research involves harvesting a patient’s Tregs and engineering them in a lab to go after a particular target in the body. The engineered cells are then reinfused into the patient to carry out their anti-inflammatory work.

Quell’s lead internal program is a potential cell therapy for preventing organ rejection in liver transplant patients. In 2021, Quell closed a $156 million Series B financing to support clinical development of this cell therapy candidate, QEL-001. A Phase 1 study is on track to start later this year. A second Quell program is in preclinical development for neuroinflammation. Quell retains full ownership of both programs.

AstraZeneca is not the only pharma company that has turned to dealmaking to get a piece of the emerging Treg therapy market. In March, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals paid $75 million up front to begin a partnership with Sonoma Biotherapeutics, a startup that is also developing autologous cell therapies based on Tregs. The first two disease targets of the alliance are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Meanwhile, Sangamo Therapeutics is developing a Treg-based therapy to prevent organ rejection in kidney transplant patients. Sangamo makes its autologous cell therapy by engineering a patient’s Tregs with a receptor that targets the kidneys. A Phase 1 study of this Sangamo Treg is ongoing.

The AstraZeneca deal makes Quell responsible for process development and manufacturing of the type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease cell therapy candidates through the end of Phase 1 clinical testing. Quell could receive more than $2 billion in milestones, plus royalties from sales of any commercialized therapies that emerge from the partnership.

The agreement also gives Quell an option to share with AstraZeneca in the development of Treg therapies for type 1 diabetes in the U.S. Quell may exercise this option at the end of the Phase 1/2 clinical trial. In exchange for exercising this option to take on more responsibility in the U.S., Quell would receive additional milestone payments and higher royalties on U.S. net sales.

“This is a very exciting collaboration with Quell as we look to expand our next-generation therapeutic toolbox and explore the untapped potential with Treg cell therapies in autoimmune indications,” Mene Pangalos, executive vice president, biopharmaceuticals R&D at AstraZeneca, said in a prepared statement. “This is aligned with our strategy to target underlying disease drivers, stop or slow disease progression and ultimately accelerate the delivery of transformative care to patients with chronic autoimmune conditions.”

Public domain image by Flickr user NIH Image Gallery