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Stem Cell Start-Up Raises $250M in Venture Funds

T-cell lymphocyte

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a T lymphocyte (NIAID)

2 July 2019. A company begun last year to create cancer therapies from banked, off-the-shelf stem cells is raising $250 million in its first round of venture financing. The company Century Therapeutics in Philadelphia was formed by life science investors Versant Ventures, based on discoveries by its scientific founders at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Stanford University in California, as well as Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics Inc. in Tokyo.

Century Therapeutics is developing treatments for blood-related and solid tumor cancers with induced pluripotent stem cells, or adult stem cells, since they’re derived from existing tissue or cells rather than embryos. These adult stem cells, says the company, are provided by healthy donors, but genetically altered and reprogrammed to be allogeneic, or free of proteins that trigger an immune reaction. Thus these stem cells can be stored in cell banks as raw material, then further modified to transform into immune-system cells to attack specific cancer targets, both blood-related and solid-tumor cancers.

Century Therapeutics plans to produce off-the-shelf engineered stem cells that transform into T-cells and natural killer cells in the immune system that attack specific types of cancer cells, and bypass defenses erected by tumors to block or evade immune-system attacks. Fujifilm Cellular Dynamics will be the primary manufacturer of the company’s cell products to meet good manufacturing practice or GMP standards.

The company’s technology is based on discoveries of its scientific founders, Marcela Maus at Massachusetts General Hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and Hiro Nakauchi at Stanford University’s medical school. Maus’s lab studies genetic engineering of T-cells from the immune system, such as chimeric antigen receptors added to T-cells as cancer therapies. Nakauchi and colleagues at Stanford investigate stem cells that form into blood cells and organ tissue, as well as T-cells addressing specific targets for immunotherapies. Fujifilm’s processes for stem cell transformation and production into functioning immune cells are licensed as well by the company.

Versant Ventures formed Century Therapeutics in 2018, which later in the year entered into the licensing agreement with Fujifilm. The first-round funding of $250 million is led by Leaps by Bayer, the venture investment arm of drug maker and agricultural science company Bayer, providing $215 million of that amount, with Versant and Fujifilm dividing the remainder. Leaps by Bayer operates largely through joint ventures like Century Therapeutics.

“Versant believes that allogeneic reagents represent the next wave of innovation in cell therapy and created Century to engineer truly off-the-shelf products to treat both hematologic and solid tumors,” says Carlos Rizzuto, a Versant partner in a Century Therapeutics statement. “Today’s financing marks an important milestone in our effort to enable cell therapies to treat a much broader array of cancer patients.”

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