Like countless biotech companies with platform technologies that have preceded it, Seattle’s Adaptive Biotechnologies aims to be a drug company.
Adaptive has made a name for itself by sequencing the cells of the human immune system. That’s no easy feat, because unlike other cells in the body, certain immune cells shuffle their DNA to help the body react quickly to danger. Adaptive’s expertise has spawned research kits to help probe the immune system’s mysteries, and has birthed a cancer diagnostics business.
But the brothers who run Adaptive said that with a new technology unveiled on Wednesday, the company will also try its hand at drug discovery and development and has established a new division for the task: Adaptive Therapeutics.
Adaptive CSO Harlan Robins—his brother, Chad (pictured above) is CEO—has come up with a new sequencing technology that the brothers say puts them on a fast track toward the pharma business. The sequencing method, called pairSEQ, allows Adaptive to rapidly find the T cells from massive sample sizes that are best suited to attack a pathogen, be it a virus, bacteria, or cancer cell. pairSEQ is described in a paper published yesterday in Science Translational Medicine.
Many companies are using cellular immunotherapy to battle cancer. They’re taking a person’s T cells, modifying them outside the body to be better cancer killers, and infusing them back into the patient. While these cell-based therapies have worked well so far in a small set of blood-borne cancers, they’ve yet to be tested in solid tumors. (I wrote a column in May about how the reality of cancer immunotherapy has yet to catch up with the hype.)
With pairSEQ, the Robins brothers say they can help cancer immunotherapy companies expand their repertoire. But to understand their claims for pairSEQ, a little biology is necessary. The part of the T cell that identifies and latches onto its prey—be it a virus, bacteria, or tumor cell—is called the receptor. Each receptor has two arms, or chains, each with its own genetic code. (Imagine a crab’s two pincers on one claw being genetically distinct.)
Complicating matters more, a body’s T cells are like snowflakes; practically no two are alike, or at least very few are. Knowing which ones are best adapted to go after a target is important when designing better, more powerful versions. The larger the pool of T cells to choose from, the better the chance of finding one with exquisite “affinity”—that is, a fantastic ability to lock in on a target and kill it.
PairSEQ allows Adaptive to know which T cells from a pool of millions are the best “match” for a target—and do it faster than anyone has done it before—because of the way it tracks the genetic sequence of the cells’ receptor chains in pairs, said Harlan Robins, who also runs the computational biology program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Whether that’s true or not will be borne out by the results Adaptive delivers to its partners. Chad Robins said he expects to announce its first deal with a drug company by year’s end, one that gives Adaptive an upfront fee, milestone payments, and a cut of sales if a drug emerges from their work and makes it to market. That’s often the kind of deal smaller biotech companies arrange when lending their expertise to a larger company’s drug pursuits.
“Our first foray with Adaptive Therapeutics is to partner with multiple companies and be one piece of their pipeline,” said Chad Robins.
But Adaptive also wants to build other types of expertise around its sequencing technology and eventually become a drug developer as well.
“As we bring talent onto the team, we’ll look to vertically integrate down the road,” said Chad Robins. “We think there are applications outside oncology to go after, particularly infectious disease.”
In some cases, Harlan Robins said, going after invasive bugs could be easier than battling cancer. One reason T cell therapy developers like Novartis (NYSE: NVS), Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE), and Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO) have first gone after blood-borne cancers is … Next Page »