Orca Bio, Lyell Immunopharma pen new pact to open up CAR-T for solid tumors

Orca Bio co-founders: Jeroen Bekaert, Ph.D., Ivan Dimov, Ph.D., and Nate Fernhoff, Ph.D.
Orca Bio co-founders (left to right) Jeroen Bekaert, Ph.D., Ivan Dimov, Ph.D., and Nate Fernhoff, Ph.D. (Orca Bio)

Two Californian biotechs are partnering up to try and break the barrier from blood to solid tumors in cell therapy.

While being a major hit in blood cancers for some patients, CAR-T has struggled in tumors, with a number of poor trial results over the years dampening hopes it could translate its efficacy into a broader range of oncology targets.

Orca Bio and Lyell Immunopharma, both operating out of California, are teaming up to try to revive those hopes, signing an R&D pact combining the two partners’ tech “to generate potentially synergistic therapeutic solutions for solid tumors.”

A small but growing number of biotechs and academic researchers, with some interest from Big Pharmas like Novartis, are also getting in on the act, trying to tweak the use of cell therapies to work on tumors of the brain, kidney and other targets.

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Little-known Lyell came to prominence last year when it penned a five-year deal with GlaxoSmithKline, which sees the partners combine GSK’s cell and gene therapy programs with Lyell’s technology that aims to improve the function and “fitness” of T cells in the hope of warding off relapses stemming from T-cell exhaustion.

Lyell CEO Rick Klausner, M.D., founded the company after heading the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and co-founding Juno Therapeutics. His team includes Chief Scientific Officer Margo Roberts, Ph.D., previously CSO of Kite Pharma; executive vice president of science and fellow NCI alum Nick Restifo; and R&D chief Stan Riddell, who co-founded Lyell and Juno and spent nearly three decades at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center working on adoptive cell therapy.

The company is focusing on autologous therapies, that is, treatments made from a patient’s own cells, but thinks its technology may come in handy across the space, including allogeneic (or off-the-shelf) treatments.

Startup Orca Bio, meanwhile, made a splash this summer with a $192 million series D round with a mission to take donor T cells and stem cells, sort them into their different subtypes and combine them in the right mixture to treat disease.

Bone marrow transplants can save patients’ lives by essentially giving them a new immune system to fight off cancer. But they can also cause life-threatening side effects, so their use is relegated to the sickest of patients. Orca Bio wants to change that by taking aim at how these treatments are made.

The new pact between Orca and Lyell “will combine precision purification T cell technologies from Orca Bio with the scientific expertise in T cell biology from Lyell to generate potentially synergistic therapeutic solutions for solid tumors.”

“The ability to produce optimal starting cell populations is one of many continuing challenges in the development of curative T cell therapies,” the pair said in a statement.  

“Evidence from current generation cell therapies suggest that the proportion of cell types and their stages of differentiation may impact the safety and efficacy of T cell therapies. Together, the companies aim to mitigate this challenge by utilizing their proprietary technologies to effectively treat solid tumor cancers.”

Financial terms were not shared.