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$100M for Tmunity cancer gene therapy from China, U.S. investors

"We have assembled a very powerful group of world class investors" to build a cancer-fighting company.

Tmunity, a company headed by the University of Pennsylvania's Carl June, a well-known cancer innovator, has raised $100 million from U.S. and China-based investors
Tmunity, a company headed by the University of Pennsylvania's Carl June, a well-known cancer innovator, has raised $100 million from U.S. and China-based investorsRead morePenn Medicine

Tmunity Therapeutics, a Philadelphia for-profit company set up by cancer-fighting Dr. Carl June and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, says it has raised $100 million from China- and U.S.-based investors to speed development of its T-cell-based personal cancer treatments.

The investors are led by Ping An Ventures, an arm of China's largest insurer, which has been plowing profits into biotech; Gilead Sciences, the California-based biopharma company, which in August said it would pay $12 billion for cell-therapy developer Kite Pharma; the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, funded by Napster cofounder and ex-Facebook president Sean Parker; and Be The Match Biotherapies, an arm of the nonprofit National Marrow Donor Program for blood cancers.

Also contributing are previous investors, including the University of Pennsylvania, where June and five of Tmunity's other founders work, and Eli Lilly & Co.'s Lilly Asia Ventures. Lilly officials introduced Tmunity to Ping An, which is part of a mostly Chinese group that on Jan. 4 pledged $76 million to move China-based KBP Pharmaceuticals to Philadelphia and hire research, management, and marketing staff so it can run U.S. clinical trials and bring Chinese drugs to U.S. patients. Penn and Lilly each invested $5 million with Tmunity two years ago.

"We have assembled a very powerful and diverse group of world-class investors" to build a Philadelphia-based biotech company, said Tmunity's CEO, Dr. Usman "Oz" Asam. Beyond investment funds, Tmunity expects to gain access to doctors and patients at other medical research schools backed by the Parker Institute, and participants in the marrow program to build its clinical trials.

"This is a great thing for Philadelphia," said Richard Vague, the banker-turned-research-patron who endowed June's chair in immunotherapy at Penn's medical school. Vague noted that federal National Institutes of Health funding has been flat over the last decade, while the "explosion" of biomedical discoveries has attracted investment from for-profit drug giants, software philanthropists, and investors in other countries. Even with funding, Vague noted, it takes years for developers to commercialize scientific developments and ensure they meet Food and Drug Administration safety standards.

June and his colleagues say they will shortly begin one of the first U.S. trials of cancer therapies relying on CRISPR gene-editing systems, which use specially engineered versions of a bacterial self-defense technique — Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short-Palindromic Repeats — to alter genes in cancer cells and other targets so they are less dangerous.

June and other U.S. scholars have noted FDA safety processes can add years to CRISPR trials. A Wall Street Journal story Monday suggested China is moving ahead of the U.S. because its scientists are already using CRISPR on human patients. Dr. Eric Kmiec, in a recent program sponsored by the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, said his own CRISPR program at Christiana Hospital near Wilmington, backed by a grant from the U.S.-Israel Binational Industrial R&D Foundation while awaiting NIH funding, could begin clinical trials this summer.

Azam said the U.S. is still far ahead "in these agile technologies. There is globalization, and it's great that we are taking advantage of that. It would be great to see levels of [U.S.] funding elevated." But Tmunity's "diverse" fund-raising proves "there is money out there, and ambitious and generous people who want to support research," he added. Penn's backing helps put Philadelphia-based start-ups like Tmunity "in the vanguard" of cell-therapy research and development, Azam concluded.

Tmunity officials declined to project how many people the firm might hire with the $100 million. The company currently works through labs at Penn, where scores of technicians and scientists have set up CRISPR production lines for experiments in medical school buildings that overlook 34th Street and the high office and apartment towers that have transformed University City in recent years. Tmunity also plans to update a lab built for the former Tengion Inc. in suburban East Norriton Township, near Norristown, as a manufacturing facility.

June and his Penn-based company offer "unrivaled expertise" and a "proven translational and manufacturing success in T-cell medicine," said Jiang Zhang, managing partner of Ping An Ventures, the insurer's health-care investment arm, in a statement. Ping An is "attracted to the global potential of [Tmunity's product] pipeline, especially the T-cell therapies in oncology in China, as well as the scope beyond oncology into autoimmune and infectious diseases, as we begin to expand our investment portfolio."