Texas' Bellicum gets $15M to expand work on gene 'switch' tech

Close to a decade after a pair of investigators from Baylor College of Medicine launched Bellicum Pharmaceuticals in Houston, the biotech has added $14.7 million to its Series B round, which will help expand an ongoing Phase I/II study of its lead therapy for graft vs. host disease.

Bellicum reports that AVG Ventures and Remeditex Ventures put up the money, which brings the round to just under $35 million, extending its financial runway into 2015.

Much of the money will go to 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 vaccine with an "on" switch that can be used to target the treatment to prostate cancer. And Bellicum believes that this therapy can succeed where Dendreon's pioneering approach to prostate cancer flopped so prominently.

"The core technology is a 'switch' that allows us to activate dendritic cells in the patient," CEO Tom Farrell tells FierceBiotech. "They've always been safe, but potency is a challenge. Our technology is contrived as a way to get past that. Most dendritic cells are activated in manufacturing, while we don't activate cells until they are in the lymph node. It's a fundamentally different approach to getting the maximum efficacy out of a dendritic cell."

And ultimately the company plans to switch from a current focus on autologous cells (derived from the patient) to an off-the-shelf treatment that should be much easier to manufacture and deliver.

There's more. Farrell says the biotech's technology also has potential to improve the early-stage CAR-T programs (chimeric antigen receptor therapies) that have catapulted onto the center stage of the oncology R&D field in recent months. For now, though, the company will focus on adding some European sites to its early BPX-501 trial.

- here's the release