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CAR-T pioneer Carl June on founding startups and cell therapy’s next act

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

The UPenn immunologist and Kymriah inventor spoke with BioPharma Dive about working with pharma, starting companies and the future of cell therapy.

Carl June was desperate.

A first-of-its-kind cancer treatment June and his team at the University of Pennsylvania were developing had shown striking early results in three patients in a small clinical trial. But funding had dried up and June couldn’t afford to treat anyone else.

So June took a risk. He and his team wrote case reports on those first three patients, each of whom had received a cutting-edge treatment known as CAR-T cell therapy. They were sick with a form of leukemia that had evaded prior treatments, but all three went into remission after treatment — results so notable they were published in August 2011 in two major medical journals.

“It worked better than we ever thought it would,” said June, in an interview with BioPharma Dive. “That completely changed everything.”

June and his colleagues received thousands of requests from leukemia patients and even owners of sick pets to receive the treatment next. Offers from pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists followed as the initial results were seen as a milestone in long-running efforts to make cell therapies for cancer. June’s program was licensed to Novartis and became the drug now sold as Kymriah.

Other therapies developed in the biotechnology startups Kite Pharma and Juno Therapeutics also reached market, stamping CAR-T as a powerful and potentially curative treatment.

Since then, funding hasn’t been a problem for June, whose next act has been to found biotech startups. One, Tmunity Therapeutics, has raised at least $175 million since 2015. Another that debuted last month, Capstan Therapeutics, has already secured $165 million. Both are part of a wave of companies trying to prove cell therapy can work in solid tumors and in autoimmune diseases.

“There’s an emerging cell therapy industry,” June said. “It’s a very exciting time.”

Challenges remain. The Food and Drug Administration last year halted trials of Tmunity’s lead program for prostate cancer after two trial participants died. Capstan’s goal — to have the body make its own CAR-T cells with the help of messenger RNA — has never been attempted in humans. Other types of cell therapies based on different cell types or using alternate production techniques have shown limitations, too.

BioPharma Dive spoke with June about his experience founding startups and the future of the field. The following conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Published Oct. 18, 2022 Ben Fidler,Senior Editor

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