Bayer powers Versant cell therapy startup to $250M round

Versant Ventures’ Century Therapeutics has exited stealth with $250 million to take allogeneic cell therapies into the clinic. Bayer’s VC wing led the investment with the support of Versant and Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics (FCDI).

Century, like other allogeneic cell therapy players, is trying to improve on autologous products that require the administration of a patient’s own cells back to them by creating off-the-shelf alternatives. The potential of allogeneic therapies has attracted a lot of attention—Allogene Therapeutics alone has raised more than $500 million—but Century thinks it can improve on existing approaches.

That belief rests on Century’s use of self-renewing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). Century puts these cells through multiple rounds of cellular engineering to create master cell banks. By expanding and differentiating the cells in these banks into immune effector cells, Century thinks it can supply “vast amounts” of homogeneous off-the-shelf products. Other developers of allogeneic cell therapies work with nonrenewable donor-derived cells.

Versant set Century up last year to build on the research of the biotech’s scientific cofounders, Marcela Maus, M.D., Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School and Hiro Nakauchi, M.D., Ph.D., of Stanford University School of Medicine.

A partnership with Fujifilm subsidiary FCDI followed later in 2018, providing Century with access to an iPSC platform, immune effector cell differentiation protocols and a manufacturing service provider.  

Leaps by Bayer, the VC wing of the German life science company, has committed $215 million to enable Century to build on this platform. With the involvement of Versant and FCDI bringing the size of the round up to $250 million, Century is positioned to move multiple iPSC-derived treatments for blood cancers and solid tumors into human testing.

The pursuit of iPSC-derived cell therapies may take Century into uncharted waters. Maus is among the researchers to previously note the challenges this will entail, telling Cancer Discovery last year that “we don’t have a long safety track record of using pluripotent stem cells clinically, much less genetically manipulated ones.” Other researchers have questioned how companies will convince the FDA that their products are completely free from undifferentiated stem cells. 

Century is well equipped to try to overcome these hurdles. As well as raising $250 million, Century has put together a leadership team with deep experience in immuno-oncology and cell therapies.

Ex-Juno Therapeutics CSO Hyam Levitsky, M.D., has taken up the post of president of R&D at Century. Luis Borges, Ph.D., an ex-Amgen scientist who spent the past two years at Cell Medica, has come on board as CSO. And longtime Celgene and Roche employee Adrienne Farid, Ph.D., has arrived as chief development officer. This team will be led by Lalo Flores, Ph.D., who helped to guide Versant’s Novira Therapeutics to a takeover by Johnson & Johnson in 2015.