Wendell Lim/Photo Credit: UCSF

As interest in ways to battle disease using engineered immune cells rises, Gilead Sciences has taken a chance on a start-up developing molecular “logic” for cancer treatment. 

Acquiring Cell Design Labs for $175 million, Gilead Sciences confirms its commitment to their work, especially as they have yet to produce any drugs. 

MIT Technology Review writes, founded by University of California, San Francisco, by synthetic biologist Wendell Lim, he creates “programs” to install inside T cells, the killer cells of the immune system, giving them new abilities. 

After the US approved two CAR-T treatments, which work with blood cancer, Gilead is now hoping to invest in the next generation of cell designs that could help treat more types of cancer, with the acquisition. 


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Lim explained, “The first wave of these cell therapies, the miracle was that something worked at all. In the future it will be much more of an engineering discipline. These cells are programmable, so having the right operating system and right language are critical to reaching the next level of sophistication and predictability.”

Cell Design Labs has been developing new designs, including one featuring a molecular dial that let them turn the killing activity of T cells up or down. Another one involved a T cell re-engineered to turn on only if it is attached to not one but two separate molecules on a target cell. That feature could be helpful in safely hitting harder-to-reach tumours. 

According to Lim, he believes he got “lucky” in becoming one of the first to pair synthetic biology with immune cells. If things go well with the technology, Gilead will pay up to $567 million, furthering just how vital genetic programming techniques will be in taking the therapies to the next level of sophistication. 

The potential of being able to design T cells with precision means companies will be able to go beyond cancer, turning them into drug delivery drones, letting them tackle HIV, or even use them to solve autoimmune diseases.