Biotech Strategy Blog

Commentary on Science, Innovation & New Products with a focus on Oncology, Hematology & Cancer Immunotherapy

Posts from the ‘Gene Therapy’ category

It remains exciting times in cancer immunotherapy with breakthrough new cell therapies and checkpoint inhibitors that enhance the effectiveness of T cells.

Cellectis LogoLast Friday, Paris based Cellectis filed their IPO registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (Link to F-1).

They plan to raise $115M through an offering of American Depository Shares. You can read more about their allogeneic Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cell approach in the two interviews we did with senior management last year.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview Cellectis CEO André Choulika, PhD gave Biotech Strategy Blog last year – it was the No1 post in 2014: Can Cellectis Revolutionize CAR-T cell Immunotherapy?

As multiple companies seek to move CAR-T cell therapies forward in clinical trials, what will be interesting to see is how this novel treatment fits in with existing therapies such as bone marrow transplants. Will it replace them, or be a bridge to a transplant that enables relapsed or refractory patients to have a second chance?

In addition, where are the potential opportunities beyond B-cell malignancies such as acute lymphoid leukemia (ALL) where there’s been dramatic success, particularly in children?

Dr Krishna KomanduriLast week Biotech Strategy Blog had the privilege to interview Dr Krishna Komanduri who is Director of the Adult Stem Cell Transplant Program at the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Center and holds the Kalish Family Chair in Stem Cell Transplantation.

A physician scientist, he exudes a sense of calm professionalism – I am sure this must reassure many of his patients. Having a bone marrow transplant has been likened to jumping off a cliff in terms of what it does to one’s immune system.

In the last 2-3 years, he has dramatically increased the number of transplants at the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Center.

Dr Komanduri (@DrKomanduri) was co-chair of the 2015 BMT Tandem meeting that took place earlier this month in San Diego. It’s the combined annual meeting of the American Society of Blood and Marrow Transplantation (ASMBT) and the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research (CIBMTR).

In a half hour interview he shared his thoughts on what was exciting at Tandem, where the field is going and some of the best abstracts at the meeting which included data on CAR-T cell therapy, GVHD and gene therapy.

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Yumanity logoWe recently wrote about Syros Pharmaceuticals, one of whose founders, Dr Rick Young is based at the Whitehead Institute of MIT in Cambridge MA.

Another biopharma start-up company being spun out from research done at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research is Yumanity Therapeutics.

The company recently launched with Tony Coles as CEO and Ken Rhodes as Chief Scientific Officer. Their focus is on transforming drug discovery for neurodegenerative diseases caused by protein misfolding.

The scientific founder is Dr Susan Lindquist, who spoke with Biotech Strategy Blog about her research and the Yumanity approach to drug development.

The company is committed to “improving human conditions. That’s why we call it Yumanity. The Y is for yeast, but it really is focused on humanity,” said Lindquist.

Dr Linquist started her interview by noting that as we live longer, we are more likely to get neurodegenerative diseases, starkly noting the reality of the lack of progress in drug development in this area:

“There is really, right now, nothing that we can do about them. We just do not understand how to move the needle on these and it’s really becoming an absolute crisis and it is taking a very substantial section of our healthcare budget as it is. As we continue to make better inroads against cancer and HIV and all of the other ills of mankind, it’s just going to get worse, I think. Everybody is beginning to appreciate that there is going to be an economic disaster and that we are going to ruining the next generation in a way that, at this point, is going to be tragic.”

So what is the approach Yumanity is taking, in the hope of succeeding where others have failed?

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Bluebird bio logoBluebird bio ($BLUE) is an emerging biotech company with a novel lentiglobin gene therapy in development that could revolutionize the treatment of beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease.

There’s a tremendous global unmet medical need for new effective treatments that could potentially result in transfusion independence.

Earlier this week we published an interview with Dr Alexis Thompson, the PI for the Northstar clinical trial of lentiglobin in beta-thalassemia that was presented at ASH last month.

The story continues with an interview with bluebird bio CEO Nick Leschly in which he discusses in more detail how their “one time” treatment could potentially be transformative.

He says, we have to figure out a way to get this in the hands of global regions, because thalassemia and sickle cell together are the most common genetic disorders in the world.”

Whether countries that aren’t as wealthy as the US can afford novel gene therapy treatments is a big question, it will be interesting to see how that pans out, but it’s exciting to have potentially transformative new treatments in development.

Leschly says the mission of Bluebird bio is “making hope a reality.” It’s a compelling vision that he’s well on the way to pulling off with lentiglobin.

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Bellicum logoSeveral subscribers have written to ask what we think of Houston based Bellicum Pharmaceuticals?

Bellicum is a company that along with Novartis, Kite, Juno and Cellectis has a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cell therapy in development, amongst other things.

Readers already know the company had a successful IPO in December (NASDAQ: BLCM) and were reported to have raised $140M to fund future development.

This morning, the company announced enrollment of the first cohort of pediatric patients in a phase 1/2 dose escalation trial of BPX-501 (link to press release). This T cell therapy aims to mitigate the risk of graft versus host disease (GvHD) after an allogeneic haploid hematopoietic stem cell transplant.

BSB spoke with Bellicum CEO Tom Farrell and COO Dr Annemarie Moseley to answer some of the questions we think subscribers would like to know more about such as:

  • Market opportunity for BPX-501
  • Mechanism of action of BPX-501
  • Strategic direction the company is taking
  • Vision with regards to its CAR-T development
  • Milestones expected in 2015

We’ve provided some additional commentary on the challenges and opportunities Bellicum may face in the GvHD market and how we think the company stacks up against the competition in the CAR-T space. Be warned this piece is a long read: 6,000+ words!

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Beta thalassemia isn’t something you read much about in the medical lay press, at least until recently.  Part of the problem is the lack of approved therapies, as well as the dearth of new products being evaluated in this condition.  It’s also more common in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia compared to the US, where it’s medical cousin, sickle cell anemia, dominates.

Things are changing on the horizon though with the advent of new approaches in gene therapy and gene editing, which have enabled new compounds to be developed that strike right at the source of the problem – mutated genes – rather than tackle the symptoms associated with the complications that can arise.

As such, this new approach is potentially transformative and therefore of great medical interest.

bluebird bioIn the first of our two part series, we take a look at what the clinical impact of treating thalassemia patients really means and what’s happening next in sickle cell disease in a interview with Dr Alexis Thompson, the PI for the Bluebird Bio Northstar trial with lentiglobin that was presented at ASH last month.

Her perspectives offer a fascinating insight into this novel therapy now that the first 4 patients have been successfully treated.

In the second part of the series later this week, we will also take a look at Bluebird Bio the company, and their approach to gene therapy with lentiglobin and CAR T cell therapy with an interview with their CEO, Nick Leschly.

Interested readers can log-in or sign up below to learn more about lentiglobin in beta thalassemia.

San Francisco – “Manic Monday” is what I call Monday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. It’s when the majority of oral presentations take place in multiple parallel sessions that require you to run between meeting rooms if you want to follow a particular drug across different blood cancers.

It’s even more challenging this year by the fact the conference is in three buildings at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. While Moscone North and South are interconnected thanks to an underground atrium, to get to sessions in Moscone West from North/South you have to go out of the building, cross one or two main roads, then go up elevators to the second or third floors. Not ideal! I think ASH is now too big for the venue.

Looking back on yesterday, it was a privilege to be in the audience when Dr Kanti Rai received a well-deserved lifetime achievement award for his work in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). A visibily moved Dr Rai was given a standing ovation by the thousands present in the plenary hall.

Dr Kanti Rai ASH14 LIfetime Achievement Award

Expect the #ASH14 Twitter stream today to be like opening the tap to run a bath. I congratulate all the hematology experts who have shared data and commentary from sessions via social media. #ASH14 stands out in terms of expert engagement and a high signal to noise ratio.

If there was an award for best conference coverage of #ASH14 on Twitter I would nominate @drmiguelperales.

Not only does Dr Perales from Sloan-Kettering share tweets from the sessions that he is in that are accurate and informative, but he frequently offers links to relevant papers for those that want to learn more. In addition to showcasing his expertise, this is a really good way to use social media to educate and inform. I look forward to his commentary, particularly if I am in another session at ASH. A must follow on Twitter!

To the extent possible we’ll be providing updates to today’s live blog throughout the date, subscribers can login to read more or you can purchase access by clicking on the blue icon at the end.

Imagine that you are born deaf and live in a world of silence – what price would you pay for a new treatment that might restore your hearing?

That is the market opportunity that may be available for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies as the basic science around congenital hearing loss starts to yield insights that could translate into new products.

Research published in the July 26, 2012 issue of the journal “Neuron” by Omar Akil from UCSF and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh and Ohio State University, showed the ability to reverse hearing loss in mice through the use of gene therapy (viral-mediated insertion) to replace the absent vesicular glutamate transporter-3 gene (VGLUT3).

VGLUT3 is a gene involved with the transport of the neurotransmitter glutamate that is required by inner hair cells in order to generate neural responses to sound. Mice lacking VGLUT3 can’t hear.

Insertion of the VGLUT3 gene into mice cochlear cells resulted in restoration of hearing that lasted for 9 months (that’s a long time for mice). The authors noted that:

“These findings represent a successful restoration of hearing by gene replacement in mice, which is a significant advance toward gene therapy of human deafness.”

Over 50% of all human hearing loss is genetically based, and as tools to understand the human genome develop, scientists have been able to identify a number of genes associated with hearing loss.

Research in animal models is ongoing, with the potential in the future that we may be able to replace, repair or correct a defect a genetic mutation.

Could this lead to the restoration of human hearing? The answer is “yes”.

An accompanying editorial in Neuron by Donna Martin and Yehoash Raphael from The University of Michigan describes the work by Akil and colleagues as a major breakthrough:

“Results presented in their paper are a true breakthrough because they show that gene therapy can lead to functional recovery from sensorineural deafness. Even more exciting is the direct relevance of this work to a large population of humans who have mutations in the VGLUT3 gene.”

There remain a number of challenges before gene therapy to correct human deafness becomes a reality, but biopharmaceutical companies such as GenVec (NASDAQ: GNVC) already see the market opportunity and potential for gene therapy to correct hearing loss. Novartis have a collaboration agreement with GenVec that is worth up to $213.6M in milestone payments.

The potential of gene therapy to restore hearing loss will offer hope to many with deafness. It is an exciting area to watch as innovative science translates into personalized medicine.


ResearchBlogging.orgOmar Akil, Rebecca P. Seal, Kevin Burke, Chuansong Wang, Aurash Alemi, Matthew During, Robert H. Edwards, & Lawrence R. Lustig (2012). Restoration of Hearing in the VGLUT3 Knockout Mouse Using Virally Mediated Gene Therapy Neuron, 283-293 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.05.019

Donna M. Martin, & Yehoash Raphael (2012). Have You Heard? Viral-Mediated Gene Therapy Restores Hearing Neuron, 75, 188-190 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.06.008


In a letter to the science journal Nature, published online on August 21, 2011, scientists from Northwestern University in Chicago report findings that could help develop drugs for patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS is a progressive, fatal, degenerative motor neurone disease, which results in the inability to walk, get out of bed, move arms, hands, swallow or chew. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive functions are not usually impaired, making it a particularly nasty disease when faced with awareness of disease progression.

According to Wikipedia, ALS is one of the most common neuromuscular diseases worldwide, with 1 or 2 people in every 100,000 developing ALS each year.

One of the characteristics of ALS and other neurodegenerative disease is the accumulation of protein aggregates or inclusions. Amyloid-ß plaques and intracellular tau neurofibrillary tangles are common in Alzheimer’s disease, for example.

By contrast, in ALS, a hallmark of the disease pathology is the presence of ubiquitin-positive, protein aggregates in spinal motor neurons.

The new research from Northwestern University shows how a mutation in UBQLN2, the gene that encodes ubiquilin 2, may be the cause of ALS in some patients.

The UBQLN2 mutation results in a failure to properly encode the protein, ubiquilin 2, a member of the ubiquitin-like protein family known as ubiquilins. The result is that normal protein degradation through the ubiquilin pathway is impaired, leading to cellular deposits and abnormal protein aggregation.

How did the team at Northwestern discover this insight?

Using DNA sequencing they looked at a five-generation family with 19 affected by ALS and sought to identify the causative gene in the transmission of this disease.  They found that a mutation in UBQLN2, the gene that encodes ubiquilin 2 was the key difference in those family members with or without ALS.

They subsequently tested the hypothesis that UBQLN2 mutations were causative of ALS using clinical data from 40 individuals in 5 families with UBQLN2 mutations. Interestingly in eight patients with the UBQLN2 mutation and ALS, dementia was also present suggesting a possible link between ubquilin 2 inclusions and dementia.

The team explored this correlation by examining brain autopsy samples of 15 cases without UBQLN2 mutations, of which 5 had experienced dementia as well as ALS. They found no ubiquilin 2 pathology in the hippocampus of the 10 ALS patients without dementia, but did find it in the 5 that had experienced both ALS and dementia. They noted:

The correlation of hippocampal ubiquilin 2 pathology to dementia in ALS cases with or without UBQLN2 mutations indicates that ubiquilin 2 is widely involved in ALS-related dementia, even without UBQLN2 mutations.

They also observed that:

We did not observe obvious differences in the distributions of wild-type and mutant ubiquilin2.

The authors concluded:

These data provide robust evidence for an impairment of protein turnover in the pathogenesis of ALS and ALS/dementia, and possibly in other neurodegenerative disorders as well.

These interesting findings by the Northwestern group were reported in Nature, and while promising, must be treated with caution for several reasons:

  1. It is still early-stage preliminary research on a small group of subjects.
  2. The exact function of ubiquilin 2 is not well understood.
  3. Not all ALS patients have the UBQLN2 mutation
  4. If the UBQLN2 mutation is not present in all ALS patients, then this mutation is not the sole means by which ALS develops.
  5. UBQLN2 may not be the only mutation involved in the pathophysiology of ALS.

The data from Northwestern does, however, offer hope that in the future, gene therapy or new treatments could be developed that stop or slow disease progression. Targeting the ubquilin pathway and the UBQLN2 mutation may, for example, prevent the abnormal protein turnover and aggregation that leads to impaired signaling and loss of function seen in ALS.

Further research into pathogenic pathways could lead to new targets for drug development, not only for the treatment of ALS but also dementia, and other neurodegenerative disorders.

ResearchBlogging.orgDeng, H., Chen, W., Hong, S., Boycott, K., Gorrie, G., Siddique, N., Yang, Y., Fecto, F., Shi, Y., Zhai, H., Jiang, H., Hirano, M., Rampersaud, E., Jansen, G., Donkervoort, S., Bigio, E., Brooks, B., Ajroud, K., Sufit, R., Haines, J., Mugnaini, E., Pericak-Vance, M., & Siddique, T. (2011). Mutations in UBQLN2 cause dominant X-linked juvenile and adult-onset ALS and ALS/dementia Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature10353

Story source:  LA Times & Fierce Biotech

Today, my attention was caught by The New York Academy of Sciences forthcoming seminar on “Angiogenesis: Breakthroughs in Basic Science and Therapeutic Applications.”

Sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and the Dr Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, the seminar (free registration) features some distinguished speakers including Napoleone Ferrara, MD who is giving a presentation on the “Discovery of Anti-Angiogenesis Therapies for Cancer and Ocular Disease.

I’m particularly interested in hearing the panel discussion in the afternoon on the “future of angiogenic medicine,” and the potential of gene transfer therapy as a treatment option.

Those following this area will already know that ocular gene therapy was a topic of discussion at the FDA Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee meeting in June this year.

The briefing document for the meeting discusses how a number of inherited retinal diseases such as Leber Congenital Amaurosis, Stargardt Disease and Retinitis Pigmentosa might benefit from gene therapy.  Given the standard of care is largely supportive in many of these disorders, the potential benefits are huge.

Gene therapy may also offer benefits in the treatment of acquired retinal disorders such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in people aged 50 years of older in the developed world.

In a presentation to the meeting by Professor Peter Campochiaro of the Wimer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins, he noted the burden of regular introcular injections.

Potential gene therapy products for retinal disease, such as those using viral vectors and plasmid DNA vectors into which a transgene can be inserted, will be an interesting area to watch.

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