BioHealth Capital Region Showcases Strengths of Cutting Edge Therapies

Biopharma and Life Science companies in the BioHealth Capital Region are known for their work with cutting edge technologies such as gene and cell therapies. Those strengths were on display at the 6th annual BioHealth Capital Region Forum.

The Strengths of our Region: Cutting Edge Therapies panel, which was moderated by Mark Cobbold, vice president of Discovery in Early Oncology at AstraZeneca, brought together leaders from three other companies to discuss their disruptive pipelines, the strength of the region and challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cobbold touted the work performed by the three companies joining him on the panel, Cartesian Therapeutics, Adaptive Phage Therapeutics, and Ziel Bio. Pointing to the work being done by those three companies and AstraZeneca, Cobbold said they are representative of why the BioHealth Capital Region has become one of the most successful BioHubs in the United States.

“You’re really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in treating patients,” Cobbold told the panelists.

Murat Kalayoglu, Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Gaithersburg, Md.-based Cartesian Therapeutics, noted his company’s attempts to develop novel cell immunotherapy treatments for autoimmune diseases, a first-of-its-kind attempt, as well as for respiratory diseases, including acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is associated with COVID-19. Kalayoglu said the concept for the ARDS CAR-T program went from concept to the clinic in a matter of about seven months, making it the first engineered cell therapy in respiratory disease. He said that would not have happened had the company not been flexible in its attempts to combat COVID-19.

Over the past few years, CAR-T treatments have become promising therapies for some hematological cancers, however, they come with a certain safety risk due to toxicity issues. Kalayoglu said Cartesian’s assets have been engineered with a predictable half-life in order to mitigate those concerns. Because of increased safety, Cartesian’s RNA-based programs have the potential to become front-line treatments for some diseases.

Unlike many companies, Charlottesville, Va.-based Ziel Bio did not pivot its pipeline to combat COVID-19. Instead, the company remained focused on its core mission of developing treatments for cancer, particularly a monoclonal antibody against cell surface plectin, a target that is highly expressed on the plasma membrane of multiple types of cancer cells. Kimberly Kelly, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Ziel Bio, said the company has been preparing to take that monoclonal antibody, ZB131, into the clinic in 2021. Kelly said cell surface plectin plays a key role in proliferation, migration, and cell survival and as such, has a significant potential as a drug target for a range of difficult to treat cancers.

Ziel is primarily using funds from a $25 million Series A financing round last year to drive the development of that product, as well as other oncology assets that are in the discovery phase. Having additional assets in development is important because that will help the company grow, she said.  

Greg Merrill, CEO of Adaptive Phage Therapeutics, also based in Gaithersburg, Md., said breakthroughs in genomics have boosted his company’s ability to use phage therapy with fewer complications in order to better address multi-drug resistant infectious diseases. The company has been able to harness its expanding phage library, known as PhageBank, which was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. The company is preparing to begin a Phase I/II study of a phage therapy in conjunction with antibiotics for patients with culture-proven chronic prosthetic joint infection who are candidates for two-stage exchange arthroplasty.

In addition to that movement in its pipeline, Merrill said the company is working with the Department of Defense to develop a phage-based COVID-19 vaccine program. He said the use of phage in humans is well-understood and has the potential to address the growing concern of drug-resistant infections. Merrill added the company has been harnessing the power of machine learning to predict an earlier stage where a particular phage can be effective against a particular bacteria and to predict which phage could be effective based on genomics of a bacterial infection.

While these companies are blazing trails in the BioHealth Capital Region, there are some challenges, particularly in the lack of wet-lab space and less involvement from venture capitalists than in other regions, such as the greater Boston area. While those may currently be lacking, for the most part, the region is filled with strengths, particularly the ability to attract top personnel. Cobbold suggested that the work conducted by biopharma and life science companies in the area is cutting edge, which makes it easier for people to relocate to the area.

“It’s a magnet for them,” he said.

Looking ahead, each of the company representatives suggested that 2021 will bring about multiple milestones, including advancement in clinical development, as well as company growth. Replays of the 6th Annual BioHealth Capital Region forum are available online by visiting https://eventmobi.com/biohealth2020.

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Alex Keown

Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.

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