An experimental cancer trial in France is getting a boost from the Gates Foundation: ‘Potential game-changer’

Marina Cavazzana
Marina Cavazzana, a Smart Immune cofounder and gene therapy expert, in 2013 in Paris.
Stephane GRANGIER—Corbis/Getty Images

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is known for spending billions to fight infectious diseases in developing countries, so a new investment in a French biotech company feels somewhat unusual.

Smart Immune will receive $5 million from the foundation, according to the Financial Times. The company has developed a thymus-empowered T-cell therapy platform, called ProTcell, “to fully and rapidly re-arm the immune system.”

The technology coaxes stem cells in a lab to become immature “progenitor” T-cells. Injected into the body, they mature in under 100 days into a crucial part of the immune system. That compares to the 18 months an immune-compromised patient needs to rebuild the immune system following a bone marrow transplant.

The funding will go toward an early-stage trial to rebuild leukemia patients’ immune systems after chemotherapy. 

“Our work in rearming patients’ immune systems is particularly exciting for global health since this concept has application beyond oncology and into infectious diseases such as HIV,” Smart Immune CEO Karine Rossignol told the FT.

The Gates Foundation hopes the French firm’s technology will eventually help HIV patients rebuild their immune systems completely—it’s spent heavily fighting HIV in developing countries, with sub-Saharan Africa being the hardest-hit region

Last month, Smart Immune announced it was chosen by the European Innovation Council (EIC) to receive funding to “accelerate the development of ProTcell to treat life-threatening cancers and infection.” A €2.5 million grant from the EIC Accelerator Fund will support the firm’s ongoing Phase I/II clinical trials, while an equity investment commitment of up to €15 million will go toward application development and bioproduction scale-up. 

“We are thrilled our technology has been recognized by the European Innovation Council as a potential game-changer in the way in which life-threatening cancers and infection are treated,” Rossignol said in a statement. “This investment will support our ongoing clinical trials in Europe and the US, for our ProTcell therapy platform in acute leukemia and inherited immune diseases.”

Smart Immune cofounder Marina Cavazzana, a gene therapy expert, told the FT: “We would like to make this technology affordable and sustainable for all patients that need it. But first of all comes the proof of concept in clinical trials that our claim is correct.” 

The company hopes to develop a small bedside machine that would make it easier to produce the progenitor T-cells without a lab, she told the British paper.

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