The biotech firm Torque has launched with $25 million in funding from Flagship Pioneering with the goal of making cellular therapies more effective across a broader range of tumors. To do so, the Cambridge, Mass.-based company is arming immune cells with small molecules, antibodies, or small signaling proteins called cytokines.
Torque joins a legion of companies tinkering with immune cells so they can find and attack cancer cells. In August, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the first chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, Novartis’ Kymriah, to treat kids and young adults with a type of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In the highly personalized treatment, Novartis scientists engineer a patient’s own T-cells to include a receptor that recognizes a molecule on cancer cells. A second CAR T-cell therapy, Gilead Sciences’ Yescarta, was approved last month to treat large B-cell lymphoma.
Kymriah and Yescarta can prompt remarkable responses—even cures, in some cases—for people with cancer. But cellular therapies, which encompass a range of technologies beyond CAR T-cells, do not work for everyone. Moreover, researchers have had a tough time getting engineered immune cells to tackle solid tumors.
The results for Kymriah and Yescarta are “spectacular,” says Torque president and cofounder Ulrik Nielsen. “To take this to the next level, I think everyone agrees that you need to overcome the immune suppressive microenvironment present in solid tumors and some lymphomas.”
Nielsen says Torque is doing that by chemically linking “backpacks” of small molecules, antibodies, or cytokines to immune cells. The tethered molecules help by activating the immune cell, making the immune cell stealthier, or even modulating other cells present in the tumor microenvironment. In each case, the hope is to generate a stronger, longer-term immune response.
Torque’s backpack technology was developed by M.I.T. engineer Darrell Irvine, who for a decade has been applying materials science to activating and controlling immune cells. Adding backpacks to cells is simple and inexpensive compared to manufacturing, say, CAR T-cells, Nielsen points out. That’s important when a course of Kymriah costs $475,000, he adds.
Torque’s most advanced drug candidate is a T-cell loaded with the cytokine IL-15. That program should begin clinical trials in mid-2018 in blood cancers and solid tumors.