Bayer-backed Century buys Empirica to create brain cancer CAR-Ts

Century Therapeutics has bought Empirica to drive development of allogeneic cell therapies against the brain cancer glioblastoma. The induced pluripotent stem cell (IPSC) player, which landed a $215 million investment from Bayer last year, acquired Empirica on the strength of work to create a CAR-T treatment for glioblastoma.

McMaster Children’s Hospital’s Sheila Singh and the University of Toronto’s Jason Moffat set Empirica up to use a functional genomics platform and patient-based models of brain cancer to develop novel drugs. Last month, Singh, Moffat and their collaborators detailed their progress toward that goal in a paper describing the development of anti-CD133 immunotherapies for use against glioblastoma.

The work caught the attention of Century, an early-stage biotech with the financial muscle to buy in assets. Bayer and Versant Ventures got Century up and running last year with a $250 million round, and ex-Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez joined the biotech’s board in January.

By using some of the money to buy Empirica, Century has gained access to brain tumor targets—plus the means to generate more targets—to combine with its iPSC capabilities. The combination gives Century the building blocks for off-the-shelf cell therapies against a notoriously hard-to-treat cancer.

Empirica has generated data to suggest the combination may be fruitful. In the paper published last month, Empirica scientists evaluated the applicability of three modalities to the targeting of CD133, a stem cell marker linked to poor outcomes in several cancers. The preclinical study found CAR-T cells showed more promise than antibodies and dual-antigen T-cell engagers.

Century is equipped to help Empirica translate its work to date into an off-the-shelf cell therapy. The Bayer-backed biotech is built upon a process for creating master cell banks and using them to make immune effector cells. If the process works as Century hopes, it will be able to make cell therapies at a scale and simplicity that exceeds what is possible with either autologous treatments or allogeneic products based on nonrenewable donor-derived cells. 

Both Century and Empirica have plenty of work to do to show their technologies can deliver on their potential. One obstacle, which may help explain the dearth of new glioblastoma drugs over the past 15 years, is the blood-brain barrier. The Empirica paper proposed administering CAR-T cells intratumorally to bypass the barrier and generated evidence the approach can work in mice. Sterner tests await.

Empirica will take the name Century Therapeutics Canada and work out of a site in Ontario.