Celgene spinoff debuts with big names, big bucks and big hopes

Cells
Unlike embryonic stem cells, placental cells are incredibly pure, meaning they can be taken from any placenta and injected into any human without the risk of the body rejecting them. (Pixabay/qimono)

A Celgene spinout known as Celularity with some of the biggest names in biotech and Silicon Valley has raised an eye-watering $250 million for its work in cancer.

There’s a lot here: Dr. Bob Hariri is founder, chairman and CEO of Celularity, and you’ll know him from his founding, chairing and leading of Celgene’s Cellular Therapeutics unit, as well as his being the co-founder and vice chair of Human Longevity.

His Human Longevity colleague, Dr. Peter Diamandis, is also co-founder of Celularity and now its vice chair—and the name drops don’t stop there. The company's board includes ex-Apple CEO John Sculley; the first CEO of Google Ventures (now GV) and Google’s biotech Calico creator Bill Maris; and last but not least, former FDA commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach.

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The Warren, New Jersey-headquartered biotech came into the public eye Thursday with a huge $250 million, raised from the likes of Celgene, United Therapeutics, Sorrento Therapeutics and Human Longevity, as well as other venture capitalists.

It already has an impressive 200 employees, and the company tells me that this number “is expected to grow 25% in the next 18 months.”

The biotech’s research aim is to develop cells from placentas against blood cancers and is founded on the use of cord blood taken from placentas after childbirth. Its business plan has several segments.

As Hariri explained to FierceBiotech, “Celularity is built on several main pillars: biosourcing, cell therapy and functional regeneration.”

Celularity already owns and operates LifeBankUSA, where parents can bank their children's placental stem cells and cord blood, along with the functional regeneration business including BIOVANCE and Interfyl, products made from placenta tissue used to treat severe burns and wounds.

These parts of the business are already set to bring in around $40 million for the company—an unusual bonus for such an early-stage biotech that usually has to wait years for any product/service revenue.  

LifeBankUSA, via Celularity, aims to provide new parents the option to bank their postpartum placenta and cord blood cells in what Hariri said is its “state-of-the-art facility.”

While traditional cord blood repositories provide children with solutions to hematopoietic cancers, banking a child’s placenta stem cells will “provide them with an expanded range of options and technologies aimed at enhancing their health and longevity through such future developments as organ engineering,” he adds.

On its therapy side, Celularity is targeting are blood cancers and at the moment, cord blood and placental blood transplantation are accepted as standard therapies for more than 80 diseases including leukemias, lymphomas and myelomas. The company did not, however, provide specific targets.

It’s also slated to work on Crohn’s disease and diabetic ulcers using this therapy.

Unlike embryonic stem cells, placental cells are incredibly pure, meaning they can be taken from any placenta and injected into any human without the risk of the body rejecting them.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits is the abundance of these cells: There are currently 4 million births a year, and 99% of placentas get discarded—that’s nearly an infinite supply of stem cells that could be used to treat and save the lives of millions of people, the company said.

Hariri said that the company “anticipates rolling treatments out through partner clinics within the next four years,” although he says that timeline “may change” as it collects more data. This comes as new cell therapies from the likes of Gilead/Kite and Novartis start to roll out across the U.S. after their FDA approvals last year.

When asked what evidence the company had that a placenta-based therapy could work, Hariri responded: “The placenta is the most powerful resource known to medicine.”

“These cells act as nature’s repair kit. As we age, by replenishing our reservoir of stem cells, nature’s repair kit, on an ongoing basis, we can augment our longevity. We believe that the technology being created in cellular medicine today may allow the next-generation to grow up in a world where cancer can be managed as a chronic disease,” he added.

The company also has a pact with Sorrento focused on CAR-T constructs.

“Through our strategic partner Sorrento Therapeutics, we have a powerful toolset to engineer cells for broad immunotherapeutic applications that will allow Celularity to offer the world’s first immunotherapeutic suite of products against validated and novel targets for cancer and immune disease," he explained. "In addition, Celularity discovered a novel Natural Killer cell from the placenta and is actively developing therapeutic uses.”

Even though the company has a lot of connections with Human Longevity, Hariri said it “won’t be sharing any resources.”

He added: “They operate completely separate. Human Longevity will remain focused on analyzing genotypic and phenotypic data to generate a comprehensive mapping of the human genome. While there’s certainly a longevity aspect to the company and Peter and many others on the team bring their expertise in the field, Celularity is focused on democratizing cellular medicine by being the first company to use an allogeneic placental platform, and deploying the full value chain from sourcing placental stem cells to patient treatment.”

And on those big names: “It’s always in a company’s best interest to bring together a diverse group of leaders. Celularity has the best in biotech, high tech, deep science, consumer products and more rallied together to execute against an incredibly audacious goal: To reverse the life-threatening effects of cancer and other degenerative diseases in our lifetime.

“It also goes back to your earlier question about what those big investors see in the company—there’s a major societal impact here too, and given the current landscape and business mindset (e.g. Larry Fink’s recent letter encouraging businesses to do more for society), there couldn’t be a better time or bigger appetite for a company like Celularity.”