The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Berkeley Lights said today they have launched a new biopharma focused on developing cancer cell therapies discovered at MD Anderson, and manufacturing them at broad scale.

The new company, Optera Therapeutics, would be able to speed up development of the new treatments and broaden patient access to them by applying Berkeley Lights' advanced cell therapy manufacturing systems to the new treatments, the company and MD Anderson said.

“Our hope is that by combining our cell therapy research expertise with advanced automation capabilities, we will enhance our ability to deliver these treatments to every patient who needs them,” Patrick Hwu, M.D., division head of cancer medicine at MD Anderson, said in a statement.

Optera plans to develop cell therapies being researched at MD Anderson by investigators specializing in cellular immunology. They include Cassian Yee, M.D., professor of melanoma medical oncology; Katy Rezvani, M.D., Ph.D., and Elizabeth Shpall, M.D., both professors of stem cell transplantation and cellular therapy; Chantale Bernatchez, Ph.D., assistant professor of melanoma medical oncology; Sattva Neelapu, M.D., professor of lymphoma and myeloma; and Greg Lizee, Ph.D., associate professor of melanoma medical oncology.

“Optera will capitalize on truly disruptive technology and allow us to extend our ability to treat more patients, for more cancers, in a shorter period of time,” Dr. Yee added.

Dr. Yee’s laboratory focuses on developing cancer immunotherapies, specifically adoptive T-cell therapies that involve the isolation of T cells from the peripheral blood, followed by enrichment and expansion of tumor-reactive T cells for infusion into patients with cancer.

“We performed several first-in-man studies using ex vivo expanded antigen-specific T cells that demonstrated long-term persistence of infused T cells with encouraging clinical results, sometimes complete long-lasting responses, and more often a significant delay in time to progression,” according to the web page of his lab. “Our research is focused on developing adoptive T-cell therapy in combination with other immunomodulatory reagents, including checkpoint inhibitors, vaccines, and biologicals, as a treatment option, and defining the intrinsic and extrinsic immune parameters for an effective, durable response.”

Engineering NK Cells vs. Cancer

Drs. Rezvani and Shpall last year led a team that published preclinical research showing that natural killer (NK) cells derived from donated umbilical cords can be genetically engineered to treat cancer by searching and destroying some types of leukemia and lymphoma. A first-in-human Phase I/II clinical trial of these cord-blood-derived, chimeric antigen receptor-equipped NK cells opened at MD Anderson in June for patients with relapsed or resistant chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), or non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Dr. Shpall founded and directs MD Anderson's Cord Blood Bank, and is also co-leader of MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Adoptive Cell Therapy Platform™, along with Dr. Yee.

Dr. Bernatchez’s lab focuses on cancer immunotherapy with a special emphasis on T-cell therapy using tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs). Her lab conducts translational research where human primary cells from cancer patients (tumors or immune cells) are studied to find markers of response to T-cell therapy or other immunotherapies. TIL therapy has shown a 48% clinical response rate, with most of the responses being durable, according to her lab page.

Dr. Neelapu’s lab directs its research toward identifying novel tumor-associated antigens in lymphoma and development of adoptive immunotherapeutic strategies for lymphoma. The lab has generated tumor-specific T-cell lines and clones from the TILs or peripheral blood of lymphoma patients.

“We are currently working to identify the antigens recognized by these T-cell clones using the tumor cDNA library expression cloning approach. We are also working to optimize the generation of tumor-specific T-cell lines for adoptive T-cell therapy,” according to Dr. Neelapu’s lab page.

Dr. Lizee’s lab is studying two aspects of tumor immunology. One project involves characterizing immune regulatory cells and mechanisms that are predominant within melanoma tumor and draining lymph node microenvironments of patients at various stages of disease, with the aim of identifying the types of immune regulation that are most important in melanoma.

The other project entails studying the process of tumor antigen cross-presentation by dendritic cells (DCs): “We are particularly interested in characterizing the changes in major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I trafficking and antigen processing following DC activation by Toll-like receptor ligands or other activation stimuli,” Dr. Lizee stated on his lab page.

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