Houston biotech winds down sole clinical-stage trial, cuts 60% of staff

Alaunos Therapeutics is cutting loose its sole clinical-stage asset and letting 60% of staff go less than two years after rebranding and refocusing on TCR-T cell therapies.

The Houston-area biotech said Tuesday that it's seen enough from an ongoing phase 1/2 trial testing the TCR-T Library cell therapy in a number of solid tumors. The company attributed the decision in part to a “review of the funding needs” and “the current financial markets.” An interim peek at the data showed an 83% disease control rate in six evaluable patients. That evidently wasn’t good enough to draw in fresh investor interest and so Alaunos is moving on, cutting 60% of staff in the process. The company's already low stock price fell further, from 39 cents to 17 cents per share. 

The focus is now shifting to finding partnership opportunities for Alaunos' human neoantigen T-cell receptor (hunTR) platform. The company also says it's on the hunt for strategic alternatives, a warning sign that the biotech is facing tough times. The remaining staff will help keep the heart of the platform pumping while looking for new business moves. Even after these moves, Alaunos’ $18.3 million on hand is only enough to last a couple of months, into the fourth quarter of the year. 

The splash of cold water comes less than two years after Alaunos unveiled as the rebranded version of Ziopharm Oncology. The hope was that a full pivot to T-cell therapies could cure the company’s clinical woes after 2021 was defined by two rounds of layoffs and the axing of an IL-12 program. The company also faced delays in launching the TCR-T Library cell trial which ultimately got off the runway in January 2022. 

All of that for largely nothing. The phase 1/2 trial was set to recruit roughly 180 patients—eight have been treated so far. Alaunos was working out of the MD Anderson Cancer Center, testing the T-cell therapy in a range of solid tumors that included colorectal, pancreatic and non-small cell lung cancer. The company didn’t provide any update on the safety profile from the trial. Alaunos’ senior director of clinical operations, Nate Demars, left in January, according to his LinkedIn