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Cell Programming Company Raises $49.5M in Early Funds

Obsidian rock

Obsidian rock (Kevin Walsh, Flickr)

6 December 2017. A start-up enterprise creating add-on treatments that program the effects of cell and gene therapies is raising $49.5 million in its first venture funding round. The two year-old Obsidian Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts licenses research from the chemical and systems biology lab of Thomas Wandless at Stanford University, the company’s scientific founder.

Obsidian Therapeutics aims to better control emerging treatments for cancer and other diseases that harness the immune system with genetically-altered cells, such as modified T-cells with chimeric antigen receptors, or CAR T-cells, to treat cancer. While CAR T-cells are shown to invoke the immune system to drive some forms of leukemia into remission for many patients, they also come with severe side effects and can be too dangerous for other individuals.

The Obsidian technology adapts a process developed by Wandless and colleagues known as destabilizing domains that its founders say can program the activity of CAR T-cell and similar treatments, and thus improve both their safety and efficacy. The destabilizing domains process adds a synthetic binding protein to the therapeutic protein that supports the therapy’s stability, in what the company calls a synthetic biological cassette. But the stability of the biological cassette can be adjusted with a companion small molecule compound, which makes it possible to control activity of the therapy, such as its dosing.

Obsidian’s first products are expected to help program cancer treatments, starting with cytokine, or short protein, cassettes for CAR T-cell therapies. These cytokine cassettes, says the company, will be designed to enhance the persistence and tumor-killing abilities of CAR T-cells, as well as improve their safety for patients. Future company products are expected to boost the safety and efficacy of gene therapies for cancer and other diseases.

“By equipping cells with new tumor-fighting powers,” says Obsidian CEO Michael Gilman in a company statement, “and by putting precise and dynamic dosing control in the hands of the treating physician, we believe we can improve safety, efficacy, and durability of CAR-T therapies. Moreover, we think Obsidian’s pharmacologic operating systems will enable us to build entirely new classes of living medicines.”

The company’s first funding round is raising $49.5 million led by GV, previously known as Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Taking part in the financing is Atlas Venture — Obsidian’s seed capital source — as well as Takeda Ventures Inc., Vertex Ventures HC, Amgen Ventures, Alexandria Venture Investments, and ShangPharma Investment Group.

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