It was at the constantly changing intersection of data science that Arsenal Biosciences Inc.'s CEO, Ken Drazan, found himself as he helped bring the company to life and to its $85 million series A fundraising.
"When I have casual conversation about this, I think of the first cell phone and what iPhone is like today," he told BioWorld. "At first we wanted only a few functions, but we eventually realized we needed more functionality to benefit from the technology. It's the same in biomedicine."
Informally calling itself Arsenalbio, of South San Francisco, the company plans to use the money to advance T-cell therapies for treating solid organ and hematologic cancers, with the most modern functionalities: CRISPR-based genome engineering, scaled and high-throughput target identification, synthetic biology and machine learning to develop immune cell therapies, initially for cancer. The process involves inserting, without viral vectors, large DNA payloads to enable immune cells to effectively target and destroy solid organ and hematologic cancers.
The time is right for that combination of functions, Drazan said, "because of tools like CRISPR, the declining cost of cloud computing, robotics, the ability to sequence and read cells. By combining all those things, we can create not just a reading process but writing process, which was limited in the first version of cell therapies. The newer technology can deliver larger and larger scrips, like software programs, strings of DNA to be designed and sequenced. They're programmable; let's program it to do what we want and give to the patient."
Drazan, who began his professional life as a liver transplant surgeon with faculty appointments at Stanford and UCLA, said he noticed how, as time went by, the intersection of computing, networking and better automation made for better robotic surgical experiences. But the limitations persisted and, as he became an entrepreneur at Verb Surgical, a Google and Johnson & Johnson collaboration, and as president of Grail Inc., he found the declining cost of cloud computing and sequencing helped enormously.
"When I was approached by Arsenal, I thought, 'If we take the genome of a T cell and reduce it to an engineering and technology problem, we can design an arsenal cell,'" he said.
With the series A complete, Drazan plans to grow the company by finding the right people to hire.
"A year from now, the company could be 80 to 100 people. Right now, we're half that," he said, adding that, "I believe we're building something that's not been built before."
There's plenty of competition. Novartis AG won the first-ever FDA approval for CAR T-cell therapy with Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel) little more than two years ago. Two months later, Gilead Sciences Inc.'s Kite Pharma Inc. received FDA approval for Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel), a cell-based gene therapy, to treat adult patients with certain types of large B-cell lymphoma who have not responded to or who have relapsed after at least two other kinds of treatment. Gilead paid $11.9 billion to acquire Kite just two months before the approval. (See BioWorld, Aug. 29, 2017.)
Arsenalbio's investors include the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Westlake Village Biopartners, Kleiner Perkins, the University of California, San Francisco Foundation Investment Co., Euclidean Capital and Osage University Partners.
The Parker Institute is the child of Sean Parker, the Napster founder and Facebook's first president. He pioneered the use of CRISPR gene-editing technology and is a founder and board member at Arsenalbio. (See BioWorld, June 28, 2015.)
While building the company, Drazan is eyeing the clinic, though it will be more than a year before it happens.
"One year is not possible," he said. "Two years is possible, assuming we attract all the right people that we need for the experiments that need to be run and the plan is not disrupted by whatever could get into our way. We have the right amount of cash. We can attract talent, people with tech experience, whether it's large-scale computing or data science, that are interested in working in this field."