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Unleashing the Power of Next-Generation Cell Therapy

Cancer immunotherapy aims to help the immune system find and destroy cancer cells. It can take many forms, from monoclonal antibodies and cancer vaccines to cell therapy. Emmanuel Savioz, CEO of Tigen – a biotech based at Superlab – tells us more about his vision for cell therapy and how collaborations between industry and academia could fast forward the development of new treatments. 

The promise of cell and gene therapies

Cell therapy as a first-line cancer treatment is still a distant prospect. Today, approved cell therapies are used for patients with liquid tumours – like blood cancers – that haven’t responded to standard care or more conventional treatments. The results are promising, particularly for leukaemia, where remission has proven effective with just one dose. When it comes to solid tumours, cell therapy is still considered to be an experimental treatment: these tumours are better at evading attacks from the immune system and efficient treatments are therefore harder to develop.

But cell therapies to fight solid tumour cancers are coming out of infancy. Large-scale studies have shown very promising efficacy and superior results to other existing treatments. Cell and gene therapies are the early developments in a new era of precision medicine that is emerging from new collaboration models between academia, R&D, clinicians, manufacturing, biotech and pharma companies. The process involves shipping blood from the donor or patient and tumour samples to a production facility, priming the tumour-fighting cells, sending the treatment back to the hospital and injecting it into the patient.

Reaching more patients: the obstacles we need to overcome 

Today, cell therapy treatments involve a complex, highly manual and lengthy development and manufacturing process, leading to costly treatments. The therapy is individualised, with no two treatments alike: each is created from scratch with the patient’s own cells to attack their specific tumour. At present, only the wealthiest nations can afford this kind of therapy to treat cancer. Even in the richest countries, there isn’t enough supply, with only a small fraction of patients able to access the treatment they need. The time it takes for a treatment to be ready also depends on the slots the pharma companies that manufacture and supply them have available. This can result in a life-threatening wait of several months. For a patient with an aggressive cancer who only has a few months to live, it can mean the difference between life and death.

Cell therapy might be a transformative solution for patients and society alike’

So far, only about 25,000 patients worldwide have been treated with cell therapies, mostly with a therapy called CAR T for liquid tumours. Given that cancer accounts for nearly one in six deaths worldwide and leukaemia affected more than 400,000 patients in 2020 alone, it is clear many more could benefit.

Production is not the only bottleneck in the development journey of new cell therapy treatments. The collaboration on R&D also needs to be rethought. On the one hand, we have academic centres exploring innovative ways to develop new cell therapies. On the other, we have biotech companies who are keen to in-license and standardise the work of academics – a transfer that is often painful and does not necessarily lead to a marketable product. Academics are driven to explore, ideate and overcome scientific challenges, while biotech and pharma companies plan for approval and scale – hence, they need to ensure quality, comparability, standardisation and control.

This chasm often leads to a slow and cumbersome development process, whereby academics work in a way that isn’t compatible with how biotechs and pharma later need to scale the inventions. It often means the licensee has to redo a lot of the studies with scalable and future-proof methods. Both parties will need to collaborate early and intensely to leverage their complementary skills and translate innovative R&D into concrete solutions for patients.

The solution? Change from all sides

The collaboration between Tigen, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and the CHUV on the neoantigen-specific T-cell programme is a very good example of a joint academia–industry effort to advance cell therapies. Both parties contribute their expertise. We build on the CHUV team’s deep scientific and clinical expertise and innovation, as well as on Tigen’s clinical development and technical expertise, to scale manufacturing in line with regulators’ expectations. Tigen’s first therapy that will result from the collaboration is a neoantigen-specific tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes product that is currently in Phase 1. Based on the side-by-side collaboration with our scientific partners, we’re also building the foundation for a wider pipeline of next-generation T-cell-based therapies to fight solid cancer tumours.

I believe that the integration of the latest technologies, data science and automation into a decentralised manufacturing platform like Tigen’s will ultimately make it possible to produce better therapies faster and in a much more sustainable way.

Bringing all competencies together here in the Lausanne biotech cluster, with the added support of a growing Biopôle ecosystem, will ultimately lead to more accessible therapies. To overcome the current shortage of supply, it’s also likely that in the near future we’ll see more and more academic centres of excellence integrating therapy manufacturing in or near hospitals to mitigate dependencies on third-party supply.

Healthcare providers are likely to invest in high-tech, bedside manufacturing that meets regulators’ needs for continuous control and comparability. New technology that automates parts of the process and streamlines logistics will play an important role in facilitating plug-and-play cell therapy manufacturing and making cell therapy more accessible. With innovations rolling in from all areas, therapies will improve, and costs and production times have the potential to drop substantially in years to come. This will benefit more people worldwide, including in less developed countries that cannot currently afford the therapies.

Once we achieve efficient and affordable cell therapies, more patients will have access to a potential one-off solution to eradicate cancer. Patients will be able to go back to work and contribute to society. Considering the tough and lengthy journey a cancer patient must currently go through, cell therapy might be a transformative solution for patients and society alike.

My firm belief is that we will see exceptional results within the next five years. There will be challenges to overcome, of course. Everybody in the cell therapy ecosystem will have to change, and not everybody changes at the same speed. But ultimately, we will revolutionise cancer care together. It will be a continuous learning curve and it requires the alignment of goals between different partners, but with the willingness to drive cell therapy forward and collaborate, I believe we can get there.

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Emmanuel Savioz
CEO of Tigen
Emmanuel Savioz is the CEO of Tigen. A serial entrepreneur and investor in biotech companies, Emmanuel has co-founded and led the growth of several high-tech companies in Switzerland. Emmanuel grew up and studied economics in Lausanne and holds an MBA from UC Berkeley.


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