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Bluebird Bio Turns to Gritstone’s A.I. to Find TCR Cancer Targets

Xconomy Boston — 

Bluebird Bio is betting that artificial intelligence technology from Gritstone Oncology can find new targets for cancer drugs, and the companies have struck a partnership to develop multiple cell therapies.

Cambridge, MA-based Bluebird (NASDAQ: BLUE) develops gene and cell therapies. In cancer, the company focuses on a type of cell therapy called T-cell receptor therapy (TCR). Meanwhile, Gritstone is developing cancer vaccines. The Emeryville, CA-based company says its vaccines are being developed with machine learning-based software, called Edge, that analyzes data from cancer cells to find targets unique to tumor cells. Under the deal announced Thursday, Edge will be used to find targets for Bluebird’s cancer immunotherapies.

TCR involves removing a patient’s T cells, the soldiers of the immune system, and genetically engineering them to hunt specific tumor targets. It’s a similar approach to another type of cell therapy called CAR-T (chimeric antigen receptor). While CAR-T targets cells on the surface of a tumor, TCR aims for targets inside a tumor cell.

The agreement calls for Gritstone to provide Bluebird with 10 tumor-specific targets across several tumor types. In certain cases, Gritstone will provide the TCR cells that are directed to those targets. In exchange, Bluebird is paying Gritstone $20 million up front, and an additional $10 million in the form of a Series C preferred equity investment. Gritstone is also eligible for milestone payments as cell therapies produced from the pact hit milestones, and royalties from sales should any of them reach the market. The partnership aims to bring cell therapy to a broader range of targets, which could mean reaching more patients, Philip Gregory, Bluebird’s chief scientific officer, said in a prepared statement.

According to the agreement, the Gritstone technology will also be used to select patients for clinical trials. Bluebird will handle development and manufacturing of the cell therapies, and if they’re approved, it will also be responsible for the commercialization work.

The collaboration comes as Gritstone revealed its plans for an initial public offering. According to a prospectus filed Thursday, the company set a preliminary $80 million target for its IPO, which it would use to bring its lead cancer immunotherapy into clinical trials and build a manufacturing facility.

Here’s more on Bluebird’s work in cancer immunotherapy and the origins of Gritstone.

Photo by Flickr user Linda Tanner via Creative Commons license