T cell specialist Autolus launched with £30 million warchest

A new biopharma company spun out of University College London (UCL) is planning to make waves in T cell therapies, a hot new area for cancer research, with the help of £30 million in start-up funding.

Autolus is developing engineered T cell therapies for blood and solid cancers based on chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells, a form of immunotherapy which has already shown promise in early-stage clinical trials.

CAR T cells can be produced which recognise and bind to a specific protein on cancer cells, starting an immunological process which results in the death of the malignant cell. The hope is that T cells can be taken from a cancer patient, modified via a process called adoptive cell transfer (ACT) to express CARs directed towards specific cancer antigens, and then infused back into the patient as a therapeutic.

Autolus is being backed financially by healthcare investment company Syncona and has been founded upon the work of UCL’s Martin Pule, an academic clinical haematologist and specialist in T cell engineering.

“We have an opportunity to bring innovative new therapeutic approaches to patients who often have no alternative treatment path,” said Pule, who will serve as chief scientific officer at Autolus.

“This new investment means we now have the resources to accelerate development and clinical testing of these exciting technologies,” he added.

Dr Christian Itin, a former chief executive of German cancer drug developer Micromet (acquired by Amgen for $1.16 billion in 2012) and a leader in the cancer immunotherapy field, has joined the company as chairman, while Syncona’s Edward Hodgkin will take on the role of CEO.

The news was also welcomed by Life Sciences Minister George Freeman, who said the £30 million commitment “could revolutionise cancer treatments and is a huge boost for the NHS”.

The work that underpins Autolus follows investment of over £100 million in experimental research at UCL and UCL Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) under the government’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funding scheme.

First discovered back in the 1980s, the promise of CAR T cells as therapeutics has only relatively recently been taken on board by the pharmaceutical industry, thanks to preliminary but encouraging trials in acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL).

Rising anticipation of the broad applicability of CAR T cells in therapy has already spurred the creation of a number of companies including Juno Therapeutics, Kite Pharma (which has just signed a $60 million CAR T cell-focused deal with Amgen) and Bluebird Bio.

There are still some concerns about the therapeutic approach, however, particularly regarding a phenomenon called cytokine-release syndrome, which can be fatal and has been seen in patients with more extensive cancer who are treated with CAR T cell therapies.

While the infused T cells are supposed to work by releasing cytokines to mobilise the broader immune response, in some cases there seems to be a positive feedback created, with a cascade of cytokines released that can cause high fever and massive drops in blood pressure.


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