Adaptimmune - 2014 Fierce 15

Undaunted by past setbacks, Adaptimmune tackles TCRs with partners at GSK

CEO: James Noble
Based: Oxford, U.K.
Founded: 2008
Clinical focus: Engineering T cells to fight cancer

The scoop: T cells are a great killing machine--except when it comes to cancer. They typically aren't engineered by nature to recognize cancer antigens, and when they do the antigens have a nasty habit of mutating to the point they can't connect any more. What Adaptimmune is doing is correcting the identification problem by taking patients' T cells and reengineering them with a gene encoding a new receptor that can do the job and complete the killing cycle. Closely related to CAR-T technology, advocates like Adaptimmune say that they should have more versatility with their technology, able to track down more types of cancer cells. And by swarming the system with targeted T cell attackers, the idea is to develop a highly specialized killer that leaves healthy cells alone.

What makes Adaptimmune Fierce: Up until last spring, Adaptimmune was managed alongside Immunocore--a 2013 Fierce 15 winner--by James Noble. But in March, Noble opted to take on Adaptimmune as a full-time job. A few months later, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), which has been in the process of handing over its cancer drug portfolio to Novartis ($NVS), opted to ink a $350 million partnership with Adaptimmune to really go after this field.

Dr. Axel Hoos, who runs GlaxoSmithKline's immuno-oncology R&D group, has become a champion of Adaptimmune, which started out with Penn's famous Carl June offering advice on how to develop the technology. Last summer when Hoos struck the deal with Adaptimmune, he made that endorsement crystal clear, saying: "We believe that the Adaptimmune technologies are the best technologies for TCRs." 

GSK decided to reopen a new chapter in cancer R&D with the biotech because it believes it offers the best shot at moving rapidly ahead. The pharma giant is partnering on Adaptimmune's lead program targeting the cancer testis antigen NY-ESO-1, with an option on the program that runs through clinical proof-of-concept, expected in about 15 months.

Adaptimmune is far from alone. It's working in a field that also includes Juno, another one of this year's Fierce 15 companies, as well as Kite Therapeutics ($KITE), which also had one of this year's most successful biotech IPOs. The deal with GlaxoSmithKline gives Adaptimmune a partnership designed to fund the company over some years to come, working on partnered programs as well as its own pipeline of proprietary products. 

GlaxoSmithKline's pathway in cancer isn't so clearly defined. It's handing over a portfolio of drugs and an R&D effort covering the work of some 350 staffers to Novartis. But it's free to go on and create a new oncology division, building around the Adaptimmune deal. 

Noble's experienced plenty of ups and downs over the years, steering Immunocore through a buyout when it ran out of cash and then spinning it back out to go independent again. Now, he's squarely in the center ring of one of the hottest fields in drug R&D. And it's time to shine.

Investors: Does not disclose.

For more:
GlaxoSmithKline opens a new chapter in cancer R&D with pioneering TCR pact

-- John Carroll (email | Twitter)

Adaptimmune - 2014 Fierce 15