Bringing CAR technology to not just the immune system's foot soldiers but also their commanders.
CEO: Iain McGill
Based: London, U.K.
Clinical focus: Solid organ transplantation and autoimmune diseases
The scoop: Quell Therapeutics wants to revitalize a long-dormant field of R&D through the use of the chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) that have made cancer cell therapies among the hottest niches in biotech. Syncona spawned the startup by working with—and licensing IP from—experts in regulatory T cells (Tregs), cell engineering and target indications at academic centers in London and beyond.
What makes Quell fierce: Quell has brought together experts in multiple fields to probe a question with far-reaching implications: What would happen if we applied CARs and other cell enhancements to Tregs rather than effector T cells?
Adding CARs to effector T cells led to Kite’s Yescarta, Novartis’ Kymriah and a host of would-be rivals attracted by the stellar efficacy achieved in hematological cancers. Tregs perform a different role, suppressing immune responses rather than driving immune attacks. As such, Quell thinks its Tregs have applications any time the immune system needs reining in, starting with liver transplants.
“Transplantation overall has been relatively void of significant advancements in the last few years,” Quell CEO Iain McGill said. “Essentially, therapies that people are using today to immunosuppress patients are ones that came from the 1980s and 1990s.”
The slowdown in innovation happened despite the problems still left to solve. Organ transplants are life-changing, but they are an imperfect solution, in large part because of complications associated with long-term use of immunosuppressants. According to McGill, the survival prospects for someone with a new liver are roughly comparable to those for a patient with breast cancer.
Tregs could improve those prospects by freeing patients from long-term use of immunosuppressants. Quell is far from the first group to hit upon that idea; early efforts, including those run by Quell’s scientific founders, expanded Tregs ex vivo and readministered them back into the patient. But Quell thinks it can improve the results those programs delivered by engineering Tregs so they zero in on the target organ, persist longer and otherwise have enhanced capabilities.
“With CAR-Tregs, you can direct the proven immunosuppressive potential of these Treg cells at the transplanted organ and therefore effectively put a bubble of immunosuppression around that organ,” McGill said.
That immunosuppressive bubble could free patients from a lifetime of immunosuppression and the elevated risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other health issues it entails. TxCell, now part of Sangamo Therapeutics, hit upon a similar idea. Sangamo continued the program and is now nearing the start of a CAR-Treg kidney transplant trial.
The breadth of therapeutic opportunities related to Tregs means there is space for multiple players, but Quell has reason to think it can lead the field. Through its licensing deals, Quell gained programs at a translational stage, putting it toward the front of the nascent CAR-Treg field, and snared IP from leaders in several key areas. Quell has sought to retain momentum by hiring academics who were working on the programs, resulting in it building up a team that is now approaching 20 people.
Investors: Syncona and UCL Technology Fund