AbbVie powers CAR-macrophage startup Carisma to $53M A round

Macrophages
Macrophages in bronchial wash specimen. (Librepath/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Carisma Therapeutics has raised $53 million to take its lead CAR-macrophage candidate into human testing. The University of Pennsylvania spinout plans to equip macrophages to identify and gobble up solid tumor cells by combining them with chimeric antigen receptors (CARs).

Combining CARs with macrophages, not T cells, is intended to create therapies better equipped to take out solid tumors than CAR-Ts. Modified T cells struggle to reach solid tumors and survive in the immunosuppressive microenvironment that surrounds them, leading to weaker efficacy than is seen in blood cancers.

Macrophages cope better than T cells with the oxygen and nutrient deprivation they encounter in the tumor microenvironment, making them the dominant immune cell in these areas and a possible candidate for the treatment of solid malignancies.

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Building on that idea, Carisma plans to take macrophages from a cancer patient, modify them to express CARs that recognize tumor antigens and administer them back into the same person. Once inside the body, Carisma thinks the cells will infiltrate solid tumors and engulf cancer cells. That done, the macrophage will present tumor antigen fragments to T cells to trigger an immune response.

UPenn’s Michael Klichinsky and Saar Gill, M.D., Ph.D., saw enough potential in the idea to found Carisma, then known as Carma, last year. Now, with serial biotech entrepreneur Steven Kelly at the helm and the hunt for a CMO and CSO underway, Carisma has raised money to further test the idea.

AbbVie Ventures co-led the round with HealthCap and assists from new backers Wellington Partners, TPG Biotech, MRL Ventures Fund and Agent Capital. Existing seed investors IP Group, Penn Medicine and Grazia Equity chipped in cash, too. The syndicate has set Carisma up to move its lead candidate into humans in 2019 while researching earlier-stage cancer and protein disaggregation opportunities.