Notch Therapeutics, a Vancouver biotechnology company developing a platform to produce immune cells on an industrial scale for treating diseases such as cancer, has raised US$85-million in venture funding to triple its staff and expand its research.
The company’s platform imitates a portion of a human lymphoid gland called the thymus that helps develop immune cells in large quantities for therapeutic use. In November, 2019, the company began collaborating with Allogene Therapeutics Inc. to develop treatments for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia and multiple myeloma.
Allogene is among the investors in Wednesday’s financing round, which Notch said is being led by a health care investment fund it declined to name, with participation from past investors including Toronto’s Lumira Ventures and CCRM Enterprises Holdings Ltd., an affiliate of Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine. New backers include California’s EcoR1 Capital and Samsara BioCapital, as well as New York-based Casdin Capital and Amplitude Ventures from Montreal.
Biotechnology companies have seen a surge in interest in recent years, with companies such as cancer-drug developer Repare Therapeutics Inc. and Chinook Therapeutics Inc. taking advantage of the moment by listing publicly.
In an interview, Notch president and chief executive David Main said the company hopes to tap into the public markets once it hits certain milestones in order to scale up its capital-intensive research and development. Mr. Main previously founded and took Aquinox Pharmaceuticals public on the Nasdaq exchange.
“This is a platform that could spawn many products,” Mr. Main said. “... The holy grail for cell therapy is to make it more drug-like – ready to go as soon as it’s prescribed, applicable for anybody, and being able to make it in big enough quantities that you can treat thousands of patients,” he added.
Notch’s platform was created by the labs of two renowned Canadian cell-therapy researchers: Juan-Carlos Zuniga-Pflucker of the Sunnybrook Research Institute and Peter Zandstra, who was then at the University of Toronto. By replicating immune cells on an industrial scale, Mr. Main said it could reduce the need to rely on cell donors while taking the development process from the scale of a petri dish to that of “large-scale bioreactors.”
Over the next two years, Mr. Main said the company plans to expand its work force to more than 100, from 35, as it deepens its product development experience and moves closer to generating the kind of clinical data that public-market investors would expect. The company’s research is still in a preclinical stage, Mr. Main said, “a ways away” from commercialization.
But the work Notch has done so far has impressed investors such as Lumira Ventures, which alongside the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, or CCRM, was among the earlier supporters of the platform’s inventors, helping convince them to build a company around it. Toronto Innovation Acceleration Partners, formerly called MaRS Innovation, also helped found the company.
For Lumira, the platform solved a long-standing bottleneck in therapy development, for which it had scoured the world for solutions. “We had an interest in cell therapies, but we were always concerned about what had been the main challenge in this sector – establishing a reliable, consistent and scalable manufacturing system,” said Benjamin Rovinski, a Lumira managing director.
With the new financing round, Dr. Rovinski said, “This is going to be a best-in-class, next-generation cellular immunotherapy company.”
In an e-mail, CCRM CEO and president Michael May called Notch’s technology a “revolutionary manufacturing platform” that would help Canada become a global leader in cell and gene therapy.