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Dr. Leonid Metelitsa in his lab. Image courtesy of TMC News.

Baylor College of Medicine today announced the launch of a landmark sponsored research collaboration, representing a significant milestone in its efforts to develop a new class of life-saving cancer therapy. Baylor has provided Cell Medica with an exclusive license to its proprietary Natural Killer T cell immunotherapy platform, five product candidates and an option to license future product candidates. Baylor and Cell Medica also entered into a groundbreaking co-development collaboration combining Baylor’s expertise in the creation of modified immune cell technologies with Cell Medica’s expertise in manufacturing and commercialization of cell therapy products. Together, the collaborators will develop a pipeline of next-generation cellular immunotherapy products for the treatment of cancer. The collaboration is expected to contribute to the region’s economy by creating a substantial number of biomedical industry jobs at Baylor and at Cell Medica’s U.S. headquarters in Houston.

“We are very pleased to partner with Cell Medica in a collaboration aimed at unlocking the huge potential of cellular immunotherapy for the benefit of cancer patients,” said Dr. Adam Kuspa, senior vice president and dean for research at Baylor College of Medicine.

Next-generation technology

The collaboration will accelerate the pioneering work of Dr. Leonid Metelitsa, professor of pediatrics – oncology at Baylor. While recent clinical successes in the use of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) modified T cells to treat hematologic malignancies have generated considerable promise, results in solid tumors have been limited. The primary goal of this collaboration will be to extend the use of CAR technology to natural killer T (NKT) cells, which have biological properties that may allow effective targeting of solid tumors. NKT cells are known to infiltrate tumor tissues and kill malignant cells directly or indirectly by either attacking tumor-enabling cells such as macrophages or by activation of other types of immune effector cells. In published research, Metelitsa and his team have shown the potential therapeutic advantages of functionally enhanced CAR-modified NKT cells in pre-clinical cancer models. Read more about his most recent work in the Baylor press release (provide link). These next-generation products will also be engineered to counteract the powerful inhibitory mechanisms that tumor cells deploy to evade the immune response.   

Metelitsa’s research team is part of Texas Children’s Cancer Center and the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy (CAGT) at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital and Houston Methodist Hospital. Support from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) was instrumental in progressing the underlying research and in attracting Cell Medica to Houston. Additional support was provided by the National Institutes of Health, The Caroline Wiess Law Foundation, Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer and Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Foundation.

Groundbreaking co-development structure

This co-development collaboration represents a new model for innovation development whereby Baylor retains responsibility for pre-clinical through Phase I clinical research. In parallel, Cell Medica will use its substantial experience in manufacturing clinical-grade cell therapies to establish robust production processes suitable for industrial scale-up. Co-development programs will be coordinated through the Joint Steering Committee. Following completion of successful Phase I studies, products will be transferred to Cell Medica for later-stage clinical development and commercialization. Andrew Wooten, executive director of Baylor’s Innovation Development Center (IDC) helped to structure the co-development collaboration and will oversee Baylor’s alliance management function. 

“The IDC will identify complementary assets from ongoing Baylor research programs for potential inclusion in the development plan,” Wooten said. “The Joint Steering Committee will review these new opportunities on a regular basis, and funding will be available to support development of selected new pipeline products or improved manufacturing systems.” 

“The co-development collaboration represents a novel aspect of this collaboration that will fully engage Baylor in the early stage development work, including Phase I studies,” Kuspa said.

License, option and co-development arrangements

Cell Medica has paid an up-front fee for the exclusive licensing arrangements and will make additional payments to exercise its exclusive option to license future products. Baylor is eligible to receive further payments related to late-stage clinical, regulatory approval and sales milestones, as well as royalties for the successful development of specific products. As part of the up-front consideration, Baylor will receive Cell Medica Preference Shares, which are convertible into Common Shares. Specific financial terms have not been disclosed.  

“This collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine will place Cell Medica at the forefront of new product concepts for CAR-modified immune cells,” noted Gregg Sando, CEO of Cell Medica. “Baylor’s leading research capability in this field should add significantly to our pipeline of high value products targeting cancer types that do not respond to conventional treatments.”