- Gilead’s Kite Pharma unit will partner with Appia Bio, an early-stage, California-based biotech, to research and develop cell therapies for the treatment of blood cancers.
- Under the agreement, which was announced Thursday, Appia will take charge of preclinical and early clinical research for two natural killer cell therapy candidates — derived from donor stem cells and engineered with chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs, provided by Kite. The companies hope that by combining their two platforms, they can successfully develop "off-the-shelf" cell therapies for cancer patients.
- The deal is another milestone in a big year for Appia. The biotech launched in January with $52 million in Series A financing, under the leadership of JeenJoo (JJ) Khang. Appia will receive an upfront payment, the size of which was not disclosed, an equity investment and could earn additional milestone payments worth up to $875 million.
The deal with Appia is yet another step in Gilead’s efforts to become an oncology powerhouse — a strategy the company has made clear through numerous acquisitions and partnerships over the last year. Best known for its hepatitis C and HIV medicines, the biotech spent $27 billion last year on investments in cancer drugs. But those deals were mostly outside of cell therapy, the field where Kite Pharma has made its mark.
While this particular deal is an early research partnership, it signals Kite’s interest in extending cell therapy work into allogeneic, or donor-derived, approaches. Yescarta, the unit’s first cell therapy approved, and Tecartus, its second, are both made from a patient’s own cells, a treatment type known as autologous. Novartis’ Kymriah is constructed similarly.
Appia, by comparison, uses donor stem cells to make what it calls CAR-engineered invariant natural killer T cells. In a statement, the companies claim Appia’s technology offers improved efficacy and safety, while streamlining the manufacturing and off-the-shelf accessibility of cell therapy.
While Appia takes charge of the early clinical work, Kite’s end of the bargain includes development, manufacturing and commercialization of any viable candidates that emerge from their partnership.
Appia’s launch was led with the support of venture capital firm 8VC, in addition to Two Sigma Ventures and seed investors Sherpa Healthcare Partners and Freeflow Ventures. During Series A financing, David Moskowitz and Francisco Gimenez, partner and principal at 8VC, respectively, joined the company’s board of directors. Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore of Caltech is chairman of the board.
The company’s technology platform originated from research in Dr. Lili Yang’s laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles. Yang is now one of several founders. Among them are two former executives from Kite, Edmund Kim and Jeff Wiezorek.