Autolus fundraising now tops $105M for next-gen CAR-T work

A little more than a year after nailing down a $45 million launch round, Neil Woodford has joined in a $60 million follow-up raise for Autolus aimed at accelerating its research into next-gen CAR-T drugs.

Autolus was spun out of the lab of Martin Pule at University College London. Years ago Pule got a chance to help with some of the pioneering research going into reengineering T cells into cancer therapies at Malcolm Brenner's lab at Baylor University in Texas. And now his newborn company has raised a total of $105 million to test what it hopes will be a safer approach to autologous T cell therapies (which are extracted from patients, engineered and then injected) for hematological and solid tumors.

Woodford Investment Management and Perceptive Bioscience Investments put up the cash, joining with the Series A backer Syncona.

The money arrives as the three leaders of the autologous CAR-T sector--Juno ($JUNO), Kite ($KITE) and Novartis ($NVS)--jockey for the lead in racing to the FDA with the first round of new drug applications later this year and into 2017. All of the companies, though, have faced limitations in the way they can use CAR-Ts to attack cancer cells. Safety issues like cytokine release syndrome, which can be fatal, have to be faced while researchers struggle to get better results from solid tumors.

Autolus CEO Christian Itin

That's where Autolus plans to step in. Using Pule's lab work, the biotech believes it can do better than the pioneers, leaving ample market room for them to play in.

"The plan now is to build the company," says Christian Itin, who stepped in to the CEO's job today after serving initially as chairman.

"The field is still pretty much in its infancy," he adds, with a big focus on CD19 as a target. But once you move past the extraordinary results for pediatric ALL, the responses begin to deteriorate for other types of cancer and patient populations. 

All-in, the CEO adds, there have only been about 500 patients exposed to CAR-T therapies. "The field is still pretty much in its infancy," says Itin, and over the next 10 years you can expect to see a number of improvements across the landscape.

Autolus' 40-plus staffers, backed by three evergreen funds that can go the distance on R&D, manufacturing and more in building out the company in preparation for commercialization work, are planning for a long journey. And they have the money in hand to start delivering clinical data for several planned programs.

After that, though, the company is still cautious about detailing exactly what will distinguish Autolus from the pioneers in the field.

Itin is the former CEO of Micromet, which Amgen ($AMGN) bought out in 2012 for $1.2 billion. That put him in charge of early stage development of Blincyto (blinatumomab), a bispecific T cell engager (BiTE) designed to use immune cells to attack cancerous growth through connecting CD19 on cancer cells with CD3 on T cells. 

Simply put, the BiTE technology uses an antibody to redirect killer T cells to destroy tumor cells. And his new position puts Itin, a Stanford grad who most recently helmed Cytos when it failed with a lead asthma drug, back in very familiar territory.

Autolus, of course, isn't the only company looking at next-gen CAR-T tech. Juno scientific founder Stan Riddell, for example, has been discussing a variety of new ways that can be used to amp up efficacy and provide added safety.

One area Itin says you can expect to see Autolus focus on is "appropriate programming to create T cells likely to be successful," T cells which are "much more tailored to the individual disease setting, where Martin has been working for years."

- here's the release