Ex-Novartis CAR-T researcher joins TxCell to lead CAR-Treg research program

TxCell (EPA:TXCL) has put a former Novartis ($NVS) researcher in charge of its CAR-Treg programs. Li Zhou spent more than six years working on CAR-T therapies at Novartis before jumping ship shortly before news of the upheaval at the Big Pharma’s cell and gene therapy unit came to light.

During his stint at Novartis, Zhou worked on the discovery and engineering of CAR-T therapies, the most advanced of which are now in the clinic. Zhou was also involved with next-generation products, including inducible CAR-T therapies. Novartis has taken these next-generation asserts through to in vivo proof of concept, but Zhou left before having the chance to see them get any further.

Zhou ended his six-year spell at Novartis Biologics Center in Cambridge, MA in March, six months before his former employer told staff it was folding the cell and gene therapy unit into the broader business. That departure freed Zhou up to take up the CSO post at ZMKS International Cancer Therapy Biotechnologies, but his stay at the Chinese CAR-T hopeful was short.

The CAR-T specialist has now landed at TxCell, where he has taken the role of VP of cell engineering. As he did at Novartis, Zhou will oversee the discovery and engineering CAR-T therapies, although his specific areas of focus will differ. TxCell has a long-standing interest in autoimmune disorders and regulatory T cells, a background that has led it to look at CAR-Tregs in indications other than cancer.

Zhou is sold on the concept.

“What we are doing here with CAR-Tregs to treat autoimmune diseases and transplantation-related disorders is truly unique,” he said in a statement. “TxCell has strong Treg expertise as well as great partnerships with world-leading scientists. Everything is in place to rapidly build a solid cell engineering capacity.”

TxCell is basing its expansion on ENTrIA, the second of its two technology platforms. The process entails isolating Treg cells from the blood of patients and transducing them with CARs. TxCell thinks the resulting CAR-Tregs can activate Treg cells by presenting proteins found in the inflamed regions of people with inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Over the past year, TxCell has used the platform to initiate 10 CAR programs. The plan is to focus on four or five of the programs with the potential to address lupus nephritis, bullous pemphigoid, multiple sclerosis and transplantation. TxCell will spend the next 12 months generating preclinical proof-of-concept data with view to getting at least one program into the clinic before 2018 is over.

Zhou’s appointment is the latest in a string of moves TxCell has made to support this strategy. In March, TxCell set up a scientific advisory board featuring immunology experts from centers in Israel, Italy and France. Biogen ($BIIB) SVP Olivier Danos joined the board in August. The board has since advised TxCell on which of its CAR programs to advance.