Product | People | Potential – our chat with Leucid Bio
We caught up John Maher, Chief Scientific Officer at Leucid Bio, a UK Biotechnology company focused on progressing novel CAR T therapies to improve treatment outcomes and save lives of patients with refractory cancers.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Can you please introduce yourself, what Leucid Bio does, what stage you are at currently and what makes your business and offering unique?
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher, CSO at Leucid Bio and I’m a clinical immunologist. Clinical immunology is a rather niche speciality in the UK which focuses mainly on immune disorders like allergy and immunodeficiency. I make up an even smaller subset within clinical immunology by focusing on cancers. Initially, cancer immunotherapy was not readily accepted by the oncology community because it simply didn’t work in solid cancer – it has been very interesting to see how this landscape has changed recently so that immunotherapy has now become a mainline cancer therapy.
I started my work in cancer immunotherapy in New York more than 20 years ago, while a visiting fellow in the lab of Dr Michel Sadelain. I introduced a technology known as a second generation CAR technology which was originally developed in a UK Biotech by Dr Helene Finney. In New York, Dr Sadelain had developed the capacity to introduce genes into real human T cells, advancing upon the work on cell Lines which was occurring in the UK at the time. This meant that we could deliver CAR genes into human T cells and then their ability to attack tumour cells “in a dish”. That experience completely inspired my career and I have spent the following 20 years working on CAR T. I became a clinical academic and set up a lab at Guys Hospitals which investigated CAR T cell usage in solid tumours. Over this period, CAR T technology has proven to be transformative, particularly in leukaemias of the B cell lineage and B cell lymphomas.
Once the potential for CAR T in blood cancers was recognised there was an upsurge in spin-outs and start-ups within the sphere. We spun-out Leucid Bio from King’s College London, and received Seed funding in 2017, which allowed us to focus on CAR T Therapies for solid tumours. We are currently raising additional funds which will allow us to expand and take CARs from bench to bedside.
Before we became Leucid Bio we did take one CAR from bench to bedside, for Head and Neck cancers. In this trial, which is still ongoing, we use local delivery to inject the CAR T cells directly into the cancer, therefore reducing the risk of side effects. Now, in Leucid we have a clinical lead which we are prioritising that targets a family of stress Ligands. These Ligands tend to be upregulated on stressed cells, including both stressed malignant (cancer) cells and stressed Stromal Cells (which are found within the tumour.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of Leucid Bio?
John Maher: Leucid Bio is a Spin-Out from Kings College London, assisted by Kings Commercialisation Institute, which helped commercialise our academic research.
I have been working on these CAR T-Cell therapies for more than 20 years, and primarily, this is due to the ongoing unmet need for better treatments for cancer. The number of patients who die of cancer in the UK is increasing year on year, so there is much work to do.
The good news is that cancer immunotherapy is now beginning to make an impact. I have always held the belief that clinical immunology has huge potential for advancing cancer therapy, despite the initial cynicism. We are entering an era where we have highly sophisticated technologies coming on board which will improve the precision and delivery of these advanced therapies.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Addressing the topic of People, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team?
John Maher: Back in 2017, when we started, we had a big problem with finding skilled staff as scientists with skills related to cell therapy were rapidly being onboarded elsewhere, so we started out with a very inexperienced team. Many of those who were involved in our clinical trials also moved on to the commercial sector. But what really helped was to utilize my academic team to help train the new recruits at Leucid. Now the Leucid team are highly experienced and ready to train the next generation who join the company. For me, when hiring, there is no substitute for attitude. New staff obviously need some level of scientific skill, but a brilliant person can learn and adapt to fit the need.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Moving to Product, what has been your approach to understanding approach to understanding clinical implementation?
John Maher: So far, we just have the one product which we have taken into clinical trials, but looking towards future development, we now have a road map to follow which has been trodden by the approved CAR T products currently available on the NHS. So far what seems to have worked is an approach where we start with small clinical trials, then partnering with pharma to undertake pivotal clinical trials, then moving towards regulatory approval.
I think it is important to move at pace in this industry, in academia it is very easy to continually modify at the initial development stages, but in a commercial setting progress has to be made rapidly, enabling the most suitable CAR has to be chosen and taken into the clinic.
Jazz @ ADLIB: And then Potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you had to overcome to create a business with potential?
John Maher: Trying to get a product from the bench to the bedside is full of barriers. Initially, deciding on whether to pursue an academic or commercial route was a challenge. We then needed to gain approval from our University to invest in patent filing, and ultimately in spinning out a company. As a small Spin-Out in the commercial sector, we found it difficult to raise funds in the early stages and, once we managed to do this, finding skilled staff was also difficult.
On a positive note though, the regulators in the UK, the MHRA, have been a pleasure to deal with. Whenever we have encountered difficulties in the setting up of our first academic trial of CAR T cell immunotherapy, they engaged with us and helped us to risk assess and come up with a pragmatic solution.
Jazz @ ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups, scale-ups and spin-outs. What has been your approach and experience of gaining investment?
John Maher: Ultimately, I came to realise that it was simply not possible to make the developments needed for advancement of CAR T cell immunotherapy solely from an academic position. This is because the funding provided by grants is limited and so competitive to acquire.
Realising this was what prompted me to pursue the commercial route. Once we had Spun-Out, we then faced the challenge of having to differentiate ourselves from other CAR T cell companies. I also that believe it is easier to raise capital in the US, due to the different culture that applies there, although there have been some major success stories here in the UK.