AstraZeneca pays $85M to Quell Type 1 diabetes with 'one and done' cell therapy

AstraZeneca is joining Bristol Myers Squibb in the emerging autoimmune cell therapy space, paying Quell Therapeutics $85 million upfront to collaborate on candidates including a “one and done” cure for Type 1 diabetes. 

Quell’s founding hypothesis is that engineered regulatory T (Treg) cell therapies can stop immune attacks in a targeted way. The idea combines the role Tregs play in the body, where they calm unwanted immune responses, with CARs like the targeting technology that enables cancer cell therapies. Biotechs such as GentiBio, Kyverna Therapeutics and Sonoma Biotherapeutics are pursuing similar approaches.

Internally, Quell is validating its technology with a candidate, QEL-001, designed to stop organ rejection and end the need for lifelong immunosuppression, but the model has broader applications. AstraZeneca has stepped up to help Quell explore the potential of its platform with a two-indication deal.

In return for $85 million plus potentially more than $2 billion in milestones, AstraZeneca has entered into an exclusive option and license agreement for the asset in Type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).  

“We could shut down the disease before a patient no longer has the ability to produce insulin,” Quell CEO Iain McGill told Fierce Biotech in an interview. “We're going to be intervening pretty early in the course of disease to hopefully, in a one and done way, rebase that individual as being a non-diabetic for life.” 

In IBD, the idea is to shut down the inflammatory response toward certain tissues in the gut. Other drug developers have hit upon similar ideas, with GentiBio targeting diabetes internally and partnering with BMS on IBD. Abata Therapeutics is working on Type 1 diabetes, too, and aims to move into the clinic in 2025.

Working in a hot but competitive space, Quell has raised around $220 million to date and, with its first major partnership, persuaded a leading drug developer that it can tame two big autoimmune diseases. McGill attributes some of the success to a technology that sets Quell apart from the pack.  

“The one point of differentiation between us and the other people in the space is our phenotype lock, which is the technology we have that enables us to lock these cells as suppressive cells phenotypically and keep that suppressive ability, even when they're under attack. I think that was something that was truly valued by AZ in terms of selecting a partner in the space,” the CEO said.

Landing the deal with AstraZeneca bolsters Quell’s finances. The biotech raised a $156 million series B round 18 months ago, but, as McGill notes, “cell and gene is a capital intensive endeavor.” Adding money from AstraZeneca to its own cash sets Quell up to deliver clinical proof of concept data in three diseases: the two covered by the partnership and its lead in-house indication organ rejection. Quell will handle process development and manufacturing for the partnered assets to the end of the first-in-human study.

McGill, who expects to share “really meaningful safety data this year,” sees the initial set of indications as representative of “three broad types of immune dysregulation” that Quell can address using its platform. Down the line, the biotech could potentially use the platform to treat other diseases including multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.