Gilead Sciences and its Kite cell therapy subsidiary have agreed to acquire Cell Design Labs for up to approximately $567 million, in a deal designed to grow the buyers’ footprint in chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) and other cellular therapies.

Gilead and Kite said the deal will enhance their R&D efforts with new technology platforms, allowing both to speed up the development of next-generation cell therapy candidates.

Based in Emeryville, CA, Cell Design Labs focuses on developing immunotherapies that deploy the company’s proprietary molecular modules targeting cancer and other diseases. The company is developing two propriety technology platforms. One platform is Throttle™, an “on switch” designed to modulate CAR T-cell activity using small molecules.

The other technology is synNotch™, a synthetic gene expression system designed to respond to external cues, whose applications include engineering CAR T cells that require dual antigen recognition for activation. Using synNotch, Cell Design Labs is developing several preclinical product candidates—led by a multiple myeloma treatment and including therapies for prostate cancer and hepatocellular carcinoma.

Gilead reasons that by adding both technologies to existing Kite R&D, the companies could treat a broader range of blood and solid cancers through new treatments with improved selectivity and safety.

Cell Design Labs is developing several preclinical product candidates, including therapies for prostate cancer and hepatocellular carcinoma that use the synNotch technology. The company’s lead preclinical candidate targets multiple myeloma.

“Cell Design Labs’ talented team of cell biology experts will augment and accelerate our work to bring forward new generations of CAR-T and T-cell receptor (TCR) therapies, building on our acquisition of Kite earlier this year and our efforts to improve care for people with advanced cancers,” Gilead president and CEO John F. Milligan, Ph.D., said in a statement.

Added Cell Design Labs chairman Fred Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.: “Gilead and Kite have the expertise, resources and infrastructure to help deliver on our vision of using the body’s own immune system to develop powerful living therapies.”

Cell Design Labs was established to commercialize research by the lab of Wendell Lim, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He is also Cell Design Labs’ scientific founder as well as an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“This transaction has the potential to significantly advance the field, ultimately leading to the development of transformative treatments for cancer and other complex diseases,” Dr. Lim said in a statement.

Laying Out a Roadmap

In February, Dr. Lim and co-author Carl H. June, M.D., Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, summarized the lessons from clinical experience with engineered immune cells to date and laid out a roadmap for the development of next-generation therapeutic cells.

“While engineered immune cells are poised to revolutionize the field of cancer therapy, excitement for T-cell therapeutics remains tempered by some fundamental challenges: safety, durability, and a lack of clinical efficacy in solid tumors,” Dr. Lim commented.

In June 2016, Cell Design Labs and what was then independently owned Kite Pharma launched an up-to-$67.5 million collaboration to develop next-generation, precision-controlled CAR-T immunotherapy candidates.

Kite was acquired by Gilead for $11.9 billion in a deal announced August 27 and completed October 3. At the time, the companies said the deal would marry Gilead’s expertise and resources with Kite’s technology to fulfill CAR-T’s potential for becoming one of the most powerful anticancer agents.

Kite and its founder Arie Belldegrun, M.D., are among investors in Cell Design Labs, which are led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) and include Osage Ventures, Mission Bay Ventures, Cell Design Labs president, CEO, and co-founder Brian Atwood, and other unnamed “investors with significant experience in biopharmaceutical innovation.”

Founded in 2016, Cell Design Labs has raised a total $34.4 million from investors.

Gilead plans to acquire all outstanding shares of Cell Design Labs—including approximately 12.2% of shares now held by Kite. Gilead and Kite said they would shell out approximately $175 million upfront, plus pay up to $322 million to non-Kite shareholders of Cell Design Labs tied to achieving development and approval milestones.

The acquisition is subject to customary closing conditions, and is expected to close “shortly,” Gilead and Kite said, without elaborating.

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