Gilead will partner with a California biotechnology startup to explore new ways to make cancer cell therapies safer and more effective.
The deal with Refuge Biotechnologies, announced Thursday, gives Gilead exclusive rights to use the biotech’s synthetic biology technology to develop blood cancer treatments. Gilead currently sells Yescarta and Tecartus, two cell therapies that are approved for certain leukemias and lymphomas.
Those treatments, like others from Novartis and Bristol Myers Squibb, are the product of the first wave of research into what are now known as CAR-T cell therapies. Biotech and pharmaceutical companies across the industry aim to improve on them by developing approaches that can be used “off the shelf,” have a more durable benefit or avoid some of the side effects than can make cellular treatments dangerous.
“First-generation autologous CAR T-cell therapies have dramatically changed outcomes for people with certain blood cancers yet more work needs to be done to reach additional patients,” Francesco Marincola, head of cell therapy research at Gilead’s Kite unit, said in a statement. Marincola was previously Refuge’s chief scientific officer until he joined Kite in 2021.
Refuge’s technology is designed to turn gene transcription, or the copying of DNA into RNA, on or off by using a CRISPR enzyme that’s been tweaked to no longer cut DNA. According to the companies, early data from laboratory testing have suggested a way to use this platform to improve on the safety and effectiveness of first-generation CAR-T cell therapies.
Per deal terms, Gilead will have an exclusive license to Refuge’s technology for use in blood cancers, while the startup will retain rights to solid tumor indications. Gilead will fund research, development, manufacturing and commercialization, as well as make an unspecified upfront payment to Refuge.
Refuge raised $25 million in venture funding four years ago, backed by 3SBio, Sequoia China and previous investors like WuXi Healthcare Ventures. It’s advancing several programs through preclinical testing, including cell therapies targeting the HER2 protein. Last year, the company partnered with the MD Anderson Cancer Center to develop treatments for solid tumors, including one of its HER2-targeting CAR-T therapies.