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Friday, Jan 27, 2023
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Cell Startup

A2 Biotherapeutics, based in Agoura Hills, came on the biotech startup scene earlier this month after more than a year in stealth mode, nabbing $57 million in Series A funding. Stealth mode, a term in the startup sector, means the company did not want public attention while gathering resources. For biotechs in particular, stealth mode provides time for research and development to have something on the table for investors when the company is ready to make a public statement. The first round of financing for the cell therapy company devoted to cancer treatment was announced Nov. 5, with venture firms Column Group, Vida Ventures, Samsara BioCapital and Nextech Invest named as the company’s investors. Former Amgen Inc. and Kite Pharma executives are at the helm of a 40-member team, including founder and Chief Scientific Officer Alexander Kamb, formerly senior vice president of research at Amgen; and Chief Executive Scott Foraker, who spent 25 years at Amgen, most recently as vice president and general manager of the company’s biosimilars division. Michelle Kreke, technical ops lead for A2, was formerly senior director for process development at Kite. “You’re seeing that as a bit of a trend, as far as the ability of those executives, whether they’re scientists or business people, to come out and start their own companies, and because of their experience and background, they’re attracting the interest and investment of well-known VC funds,” said Brent Reinke, founder and chairman of the Conejo Valley’s BioScience Alliance and an attorney at Musick Peeler and Garrett in Thousand Oaks. “It’s exciting to see that because for years, it just wouldn’t have happened to attract the interest of institutional VC and put that kind of money into a company here in the region.” A2 plans on using the money to develop both of its target programs, which target solid cancer tumors using technology that allows antibody fragments to bind to cancer cells and destroy them. The company also plans to build its manufacturing facility right next door to its offices in Agoura Hills. “Our idea is that sometime next year we will have a clinical candidate, meaning that it has passed our test of efficacy and safety, both in the labs and pre-clinically,” said Foraker. “We will designate it as a clinical candidate and then we will turn it over to our employees who are going to be working next door in manufacturing. We’ll have our data package and our manufacturing, and then be able to file our IND (investigational new drug) and be off to the races.” A2 will consider partnering with one or more companies that has commercialization capabilities, including Amgen, to get its drug candidates to patients quicker, although that’s just one option on the table, Foraker said. The company is also considering the traditional route of raising Series B funding or a combination of the two growth paths, with a public decision halfway through next year, Foraker added. Killer technology Innovative Targeting Solutions, a big shareholder in the company in addition to venture capital firms, contributed the bedrock technology of A2’s cell therapy platform, according to Foraker. That technology allows antibody fragments to bind with a cancer target, or a specific cancer cell, in order to destroy it. A2’s cell therapy plays in the same space as nearby Atara Biotherapeutics, which has operations in Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks. Atara focuses on CAR-T cells, or chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, but A2 will focus on solid tumors. “We’re both using CAR-Ts,” said Foraker. “We’ve come up with a platform technology that enables exquisite binding to those targets and to what were previously thought to be difficult, or even impossible to reach targets.” “BiTEs are proteins that essentially bridge and bring together the immune cell with the cancer cell, that’s how that technology works,” said Agi Hamburger, senior director of drug discovery for A2, comparing Amgen’s bispecific T-cell engager technology with what A2 is developing. “We’re actually engineering the immune cell itself, so that directly will recognize the cancer cell and I think one of the ways we’re differentiated from what other people are doing is the targets we’re pursuing.” On the company’s website, pipeline cell therapies will focus on head and neck, as well as pancreatic, colorectal and lung cancer. A2 has two developments in its pipeline, Foraker said. Its peptide HCP will be ready for clinical candidacy next year while another treatment in development will move toward that step in 2021. A2 plans to use a “much more powerful version” of a mechanism used by natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell pivotal in the host-rejection of tumors and virally infected cells. Other companies that are developing programs similar to what A2 has in the works are Nkarta Inc. in South San Francisco and Achilles Therapeutics based in the United Kingdom, according to Ahmed Enany, chief executive of the Southern California Biomedical Council. Agoura Hills advantage A2 expects to recruit and retain “very talented, early career scientists” out of area universities like UCLA and California Institute of Technology, said David Lucas, vice president of operations. Location also plays a role in the company’s development strategy – A2 is located at 30301 Agoura Road. “From an employer perspective, it’s much less expensive to set up in Agoura Hills versus the Bay Area, and from an employee perspective, the cost of living is less,” said Foraker. “I think there’s more energy to create companies and there is incentive to do that and keep them here, and then the added element is the availability of local money in fueling the growth of biotechnology between Calabasas and Camarillo,” added Enany of the Southern California Biomedical Council. “These people have the experience in developing product to go to FDA approval and they know everything in the lifecycle of a new product. That is an experience that money cannot buy.” A2 originally set up in Westlake Village, where it was subleasing space, before finding its site in Agoura Hills. The company was able to transform – in 12 weeks – a suite originally all office space into a lab-office hybrid. “I’m really pleased that we built our own lab space. It enabled us to maintain the speed of our programs, which is important, because the faster we can go the faster we can get to patients. Patients are waiting,” added Lucas. “It’s a speed game. If we can’t produce data, we can’t move forward. We wanted to have the control in our hands to drive everything forward.” Building on the second floor of an office building proved a challenge, Lucas said, but window removals allowed for lab equipment to be craned in. The move also provided an educational experience for Agoura Hills city officials, with A2 being the first biotech startup to set up shop in the area. Readymade biotech startup spaces are on the way to the Conejo Valley from developers such as Los Angeles-based HATCHspaces and Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. in Pasadena, but depending on funding availability and product demand, waiting for the right space may be too costly for entrepreneurs. “A lot of companies are looking to rent spaces that are readymade, and that doesn’t exist. You can lose a lot of time if you don’t build it. Certainly, for us we could have lost a lot of time,” explained Lucas.

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