GentiBio partners with Bristol Myers as cell therapy for immune disease gains momentum

Biotechnology startup GentiBio on Wednesday struck a deal with Bristol Myers Squibb to develop a cell therapy for inflammatory bowel disease — the latest sign of the pharmaceutical industry’s interest in an emerging field of drug research.

Through the alliance, Bristol Myers will get the right to advance into clinical testing up to three programs from GentiBio. The Boston-based biotech will get an unspecified upfront payment in return and potentially up to $1.9 billion in development and sales milestones, if achieved, the companies said.

So-called CAR-T cell therapies have proven to be powerful treatments for a handful of blood cancers. These therapies consist of patient immune cells that are genetically modified to recognize a protein target on tumors. Several are available for patients with leukemia and lymphoma, as well as multiple myeloma. When they work, they can drive cancers into lengthy remissions.

Researchers and drug developers have been looking for ways to do more with cell therapy, either by making more convenient, “off-the-shelf” cancer treatments or using them to treat different types of diseases. One approach gaining momentum after years of research involves regulatory T cells, or “Tregs,” a specialized T cell that prevents wayward immune response, such as those that occur in autoimmune or inflammatory diseases. The goal of these treatments is essentially to protect the body from attacking itself.

Multiple companies, among them GentiBio, have recently launched to develop Treg-based treatments for autoimmune disease. GentiBio has raised $177 million since its launch two years ago, including a $157 million Series A round in 2021. Sonoma Biotherapeutics, a startup co-founded by immunologist Jeffrey Bluestone, landed a $265 million financing in 2021. Kyverna Therapeutics, Quell Therapeutics and Abata Therapeutics have raised sizable sums, too.

Larger companies are interested. Kyverna was partially funded by Gilead and, in January, formed a partnership with gene editing specialist Intellia Therapeutics. Sangamo Therapeutics has a program in clinical testing. Now GentiBio, which is backed by the venture arm of Novartis, is partnering with Bristol Myers.

For Bristol Myers, the partnership gives the company the chance to broaden its cell therapy portfolio beyond cancer. The drugmaker already has two cell-based treatments on the market, Breyanzi for certain lymphomas and Abecma for multiple myeloma. With GentiBio, it plans to develop a cell therapy for inflammatory bowel disease, a chronic condition hat’s typically treated with immunosuppressive drugs that can leave people vulnerable to infections.

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