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AstraZeneca teams up with startup Quell, joining ‘Treg’ cell therapy hunt

AstraZeneca will work with biotechnology startup Quell Therapeutics to develop cell-based treatments for autoimmune diseases, the latest in a string of recent deals involving an emerging form of cell therapy.

Under terms of a deal announced Friday, AstraZeneca and Quell will co-develop regulatory T cell, or “Treg,” cell therapies for Type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. AstraZeneca will pay Quell $85 million in cash and equity, and could add up to $2 billion in future payments if the programs hit certain milestones.

In return, AstraZeneca receives an option to further develop and commercialize any candidates that progress, though Quell can opt to split U.S. rights to the Type 1 diabetes program.

The deal is another signal of AstraZeneca’s interest in cell therapy. Though the British drugmaker has built a significant presence in oncology, it’s been a latecomer to cell therapy, a field of research that’s gained significant ground in recent years. Since 2017, several medicines have been approved for blood cancers like leukemia and multiple myeloma, and are now being studied and cleared for broader use.

AstraZeneca wasn’t part of that initial wave of research. But it has reportedly been quietly building internal development and manufacturing capabilities, and last year signed its first significant deal, an alliance with Neogene Therapeutics. That alliance focused on cell therapy’s limited ability to reach into solid tumors.

AstraZeneca is building on those efforts by aligning with Quell. The startup is one of the most well-funded of a growing group of companies developing “Treg” cell therapies. These treatments harness Tregs, immune cells different from the ones used in cancer cell therapies. Tregs help protect the body against the wayward immune attacks that lead to inflammatory conditions.

Treg cell therapies are designed to try to rebalance the immune systems of patients with autoimmune conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease. The hope is they could produce long-lasting effects and avoid weakening peoples’ immune systems as many current autoimmune therapies do.

Though research remains early — one of the most advanced treatments, from Sangamo Therapeutics, is in a Phase 1 trial — the approach has intrigued some large drugmakers. Since 2020, Gilead, Bristol Myers Squibb and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have either formed collaborations with or invested in Treg cell therapy startups. Like AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers and Regeneron signed those partnerships to develop treatments for inflammatory bowel disease.

The Quell deal “is aligned with our strategy to target underlying disease drivers to stop or slow disease progression and ultimately accelerate the delivery of transformative care to patients with chronic autoimmune conditions,” said Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca’s head of biopharmaceuticals R&D, in a statement.