- Bayer's venture investment arm is leading a $105 million funding round in closely held Senti Biosciences, a California-based company using synthetic biology to develop off-the-shelf cell therapies for cancer. It is at least the third cell therapy company to receive investment from Bayer, which has since acquired one of those companies.
- Senti is advancing two experimental treatments using "natural killer" immune cells to attack tumors in leukemia and liver cancer. The company believes its technology can create treatments with greater precision and control than current cell therapies.
- The investment is another sign that Bayer believes the future of cancer cell therapies is in off-the shelf, or "allogeneic," approaches. Current cell therapies use patients' own T cells to treat blood cancers, an approach that requires a lengthy manufacturing process in order to re-engineer the cells to attack diseased cells.
Senti's technology creates "gene circuits," which are designed to identify disease biomarkers, modulate the response and then deliver a therapeutic biological effect. The startup believes the technology can be used to treat a range of diseases from rare, genetically driven conditions to autoimmune disorders.
Its initial focus, however, is in oncology. Senti has advanced experimental treatments for acute myeloid leukemia and liver cancer, using engineered chimeric antigen receptors that can bind to proteins on tumor cells — similar to the mechanism in Novartis' Kymriah and Gilead's Yescarta, but attached to natural killer cells rather than T cells.
"We believe that synthetic biology will become an important pillar in next-generation cell and gene therapy, and that Senti Bio's leadership in designing and optimizing biological circuits fits precisely with our ambition to prevent and cure cancer and to regenerate lost tissue function," Juergen Eckhardt, head of Bayer's venture arm, called Leaps by Bayer, said in a statement.
Treatment with Kymriah and Yescarta can result in deep and lasting responses in certain types of leukemia and lymphoma. However, they are also burdensome treatments that require patients to have blood drawn, wait for the treatment to be manufactured, undergo pre-infusion chemotherapy and then stay in or near a hospital post-treatment to monitor for severe side effects.
Big pharma and biotech companies, therefore, have been working for years to come up with an allogeneic option, led by such companies as Allogene, Cellectis and Adaptimmune. One challenge has been overcoming the body's immune response to foreign cells.
Bayer, too, appears to believe that cell therapy's future will be in allogeneic approaches. It initially took a minority stake in BlueRock Therapeutics before buying out the rest of the company in a transaction that valued the target at $1 billion. Leaps by Bayer also took part in a $215 million funding round for Century Therapeutics.
Bayer was joined in the Senti funding round by Matrix Partners China, Mirae Asset Capital, Ridgeback Capital and Intel Capital, all of which were new backers. Existing investors, including New Enterprise Associates, 8VC, Amgen Ventures and Lux Capital, also participated.