I’ve been working in biotech for 20 years and I have never seen the kind of transformational scientific moment in which we find ourselves today. The advancements in cell and gene therapy, have ushered in a new dawn for patient care, reinventing both the what and how of treatment. With my recent investment in Vineti, I wrote about the critical need for an essential new data infrastructure platform. With the funding of my latest (ad)venture, PACT Pharma, I reflect on yet another new front in the revolution: unprecedented interdisciplinary collaboration. The winners in next-generation cell and gene therapy will be players that maximize synergy among the life sciences, engineering, medicine and data science. Only then will we as an industry accelerate and scale these game-changing therapies for all those who can benefit from them.
PACT was born in consilience: the jumping together of knowledge to move the field of personalized cancer therapy into its next era. Specifically, using the best of machine learning and high throughput biological assays to identify and prioritize unique neoepitopes from each patient’s tumor genome, PACT is engineering autologous semi-synthetic TILs tailored to the tumor.
The story of PACT will play out in what they do and the details of how they do it, but the power really comes from the who.
PACT was catalyzed by Jim Heath and born out of a collaboration between Jim, Toni Ribas along with David Baltimore. Jim is a chemist turned nanotechnologist (a life-long translational tool-maker and systems thinker who was truly prescient about the dawn of personalized medicine); Toni, a cancer researcher (clinician and surgeon) extraordinaire and immuno-oncology and cell therapy pioneer; and David - Nobel Laureate in physiology and medicine – a visionary scientist who has for decades driven dramatic advances in the field of immunology and in the treatment of disease.
While cell and gene therapies have already shown great results for liquid tumors, these three scientists banded together to solve for solid tumors and to do so using a process that is clinically applicable - as well as logistically and financially accessible - to all patients. As Jim puts it, “We want to bring to solid tumors what CAR-T’s have done for liquid tumors. And do it in the most cost-effective fashion. We want to democratize personalized cell therapy.”
But to do so would require more tools and a new, unique, and multifactorial approach.
They sought out Elaine Mardis, a trailblazer in tumor genetics and informatics and President-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research. A genome sequencer and computational biologist, she is focused on using large scale, AI-assisted analysis to prioritize cancer targets.
From the start they also teamed up with Terry Rosen and Juan Jaen of Tularik, Flexus and Arcus fame. Terry and Juan are both scientists – chemists – but also seasoned cancer entrepreneurs with deep industry context and reach (and some excess capacity and back-office resources that would allow PACT focus exclusively on the science at initial stages).
Finally, there enters Blake Byers of GV, a multi-discipline chimera personified. Blake toggles easefully between tech and life science investing and GV, with a mission and mandate to solve the biggest problems, is also a conduit to the Google-mothership of experts in software, informatics, statistics, machine learning algorithms. For the PACT team, software is not an afterthought or a mere enabling tool; data capture, integration and robust machine learning approaches are foundational to discovery and development. Data science must go hand in glove with insights in biochemistry, tumor biology, human immunology and genetic engineering.
With Blake as interim CEO and Alex Franzusoff as CSO to orchestrate the diverse constituents (including a world-class SAB, chaired by Baltimore), PACT evolved from its roots in the collaborative effort of three scientists of diverse scientific focus to a company poised to rapidly change the face of cancer therapy. And while any one of the founding members could chest-pound as the best in what he or she does, the PACT culture is one of anti-arrogance and enthusiastic interdependence in order to succeed.
Now, together with an appropriately diverse syndicate (early-stage, cross-over, public, pharma, European and China funds came together*), we have provided the financial fuel to give this big vision flight. I am excited to join the board and to be part of the PACT family.
What is the point of this origin story? It is that PACT is a microcosm of the future of drug development. It will take the best of many disciplines jumping in together with curiosity, collaboration and humility to drive the next era of cellular and gene therapy. To quote Jim again: “We’re moving rapidly towards that goal. With the best minds and the best attitude.”
Note: PACT is hiring. Join us if you are brilliant, resilient and …consilient.
* Syndicate: GV (founding investor) led the $95.5M Series B along with new investors: Canaan Partners, Casdin Capital, Wu Capital, AbbVie Ventures and return investors: Foresite Capital, Taiho Ventures, DROIA Group, Invus, Pontifax