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Gilead’s Kite bets on early-stage biotech to advance allogeneic cell therapies

The deal with Appia is yet another step in Gilead’s efforts to become an oncology powerhouse — a strategy the company has made clear through numerous acquisitions and partnerships over the last year. Best known for its hepatitis C and HIV medicines, the biotech spent $27 billion last year on investments in cancer drugs. But those deals were mostly outside of cell therapy, the field where Kite Pharma has made its mark.

While this particular deal is an early research partnership, it signals Kite’s interest in extending cell therapy work into allogeneic, or donor-derived, approaches. Yescarta, the unit’s first cell therapy approved, and Tecartus, its second, are both made from a patient’s own cells, a treatment type known as autologous. Novartis’ Kymriah is constructed similarly.

Appia, by comparison, uses donor stem cells to make what it calls CAR-engineered invariant natural killer T cells. In a statement, the companies claim Appia’s technology offers improved efficacy and safety, while streamlining the manufacturing and off-the-shelf accessibility of cell therapy.

While Appia takes charge of the early clinical work, Kite’s end of the bargain includes development, manufacturing and commercialization of any viable candidates that emerge from their partnership.

Appia’s launch was led with the support of venture capital firm 8VC, in addition to Two Sigma Ventures and seed investors Sherpa Healthcare Partners and Freeflow Ventures. During Series A financing, David Moskowitz and Francisco Gimenez, partner and principal at 8VC, respectively, joined the company’s board of directors. Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore of Caltech is chairman of the board.

The company’s technology platform originated from research in Dr. Lili Yang’s laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles. Yang is now one of several founders. Among them are two former executives from Kite, Edmund Kim and Jeff Wiezorek.