Grabbing a quick $55M venture round, Bellicum Pharma ponders an IPO

Bellicum CEO Tom Farrell

Just 8 months after extending its last round with a $15 million raise, Houston-based Bellicum Pharmaceuticals has lured in a whole new group of backers to add $55 million to fuel its work. And the strategic financing allows the biotech to stare down a shot at an IPO while the window remains open.

"This was a good opportunity to position us for the next thing," says CEO Tom Farrell, highlighting the public biotech investors who jumped in on this round. The group includes RA Capital Management, Perceptive Advisors, Jennison Associates, Sabby Capital, Ridgeback Capital Management, venBio Select, Redmile Group, AJU IB Investment and others. All of the big current investors, including AVG Ventures and Remeditex Ventures, also joined in.

Bellicum has now raised a total of $107 million, says Farrell, banking on the ideas of a pair of scientific founders--David Spencer and Kevin Slawin--who had originally pursued their cancer vaccine technology at Baylor College of Medicine. Most of the new money will be used for the two lead programs. There's BPX-501, T cells that include a gene safety switch--dubbed CaspaCide--that are designed to eliminate transplanted cells that threaten a patient with graft vs. host disease. In reverse, the company designed BPX-201 as a dendritic cell therapeutic cancer vaccine with an "on" switch that can be used to target the treatment to prostate cancer. Dendritic cell programs have been a regular loser in the clinic, in most cases they're just too weak to have much of an impact, but Bellicum believes its targeting technology can succeed where others have failed.

Farrell, though, is also pulling back the covers on the company's preclinical work on CAR-T therapies, genetically engineered T cells that have been making an enormous splash in the biotech world, with some jaw dropping efficacy data. There's also been a huge problem with cytokine release syndrome, which can and has killed patients in these studies, forcing investigators to tailor patient selection and dosing. Farrell believes it can use its on-off switch technology to make CAR-Ts safer, offering a potentially big advance in the field.

The early studies by Kettering and others "established a beachhead for the field in a narrow indication," says Farrell, focusing on CD19 as the ideal target. To get past the beachhead and broaden its use, you have to make CAR-T safer.

Gathering a group of public investors into a big round like this while the company still has money in the bank from the last round has all the hallmarks of a pre-IPO raise. And Farrell says that's a likely route.

"That's certainly an option we are exploring," Farrell tells FierceBiotech.  

- here's the release