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Tessa Therapeutics’ new CEO bullish on moonshot in off-the-shelf cancer therapy

The Temasek-backed company may embark on its next fundraise in Q4 or early next year.

Sharanya Pillai
Published Fri, Sep 2, 2022 · 05:50 AM

SINGAPORE biotech firm Tessa Therapeutics is out to present a renewed image to investors as it works towards commercialising new cell therapies for lymphoma, including an off-the-shelf option that no player has brought to market yet.

The 10-year-old company, which counts Temasek as a key backer, has revamped its direction in recent months, with new leadership and a more streamlined focus.

It named a new chief executive on Aug 22, Thomas Willemsen, a pharma veteran who most recently led Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Company in the Asia-Pacific as a senior vice-president. Four months before that, Tessa appointed a new chief financial officer, Wilson Cheung.

In June, the company raised US$126 million in a Series A funding round, led by US healthcare investor Polaris Partners and joined by Temasek, among other existing backers. It may kick off a Series B fund raising in Q4 this year, or in the first quarter of next year.

Willemsen told The Business Times over a video call: “Wilson was brought in with me to really start the next chapter in the growth of Tessa. He has a fantastic background in private equity. We are going to focus quite a lot in the next month on engaging with investors (and) bankers.”

Cheung added: “We are right now trying to introduce the new Tessa to the investment community. We have a new management team in place, for one. We have a different strategy on the R&D… With all these new directives from the board, we feel that we are reinventing ourselves.”

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Tessa’s key asset, TT11, targets Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is an innovation in the nascent field of chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy, where a patient’s immune cells are harvested, engineered to target cancer cells and infused back in the patient. Such a method is autologous, or highly personalised to each patient.

Clinical data from the pilot stage of TT11’s Phase 2 trial showed promising efficacy, with 57.1 per cent of the participants showing a “complete response”, or disappearance of all signs of cancer. 

The company will move into the pivotal stage of the Phase 2 trial for TT11 at the end of this year or early next year, said Willemsen. About 1.5 years into the trial, there will be a mid-term analysis. Tessa is then aiming to get approval in the US for TT11 in 2025. 

“If approved, which we hope we’ll achieve in the US in the next 3 years, it’ll be the first CAR-T for patients who are having this disease and have failed all other treatments. There’s a great medical need for this to come to the market,” said Willemsen.


Autologous CAR-T therapy is still a relatively new and pricey treatment option. Swiss pharma giant Novartis was the first to gain US approval in 2017 for its CAR-T drug treating a form of leukemia, but faced flak over the US$475,000-per-patient sticker price.

The steep cost is the result of the highly-complex and non-scalable nature of the autologous method – with the patient’s extracted cells needing to be transported to a factory to be engineered.

This is where Tessa hopes to make a difference with another key asset, TT11X, that could become a cheaper off-the-shelf, or allogeneic, option. In this case, a single healthy donor’s immune cells are harvested to produce several batches of the drug, which are preserved and can be used for multiple patients, instead of just one.

Data from the Phase 1 study of TT11X showed encouraging signs of efficacy, with clinical responses in 7 out of 9 patients, and a complete disappearance of tumour in 4 patients. The company also said that its platform overcomes toxicity challenges common to off-the-shelf cell therapies, such as host rejection of the graft cells.

Besides Tessa, only a few other biotech firms have clinical trials ongoing for allogeneic CAR-T therapies, including CRISPR Therapeutics and Pfizer, in collaboration with Allogene Therapeutics. No one has crossed the regulatory finish line so far.

Willemsen reckons that the approval of allogeneic treatments could be a watershed moment for CAR-T players, “something truly transformational”.

“(When) we do not need the sick patient’s T-cells, but can have healthy donors, we will be able to have off-the-shelf treatments that have a dramatically higher level of response than what is currently available,” he said.

Another moonshot the company is looking at is the possibility of making TT11 a second-line treatment, after chemotherapy, as opposed to being an option that is considered only much later in the patient’s journey.

This would take more time, possibly happening only several years after TT11 gets the approval as a third or fourth-line treatment that Tessa has targeted in 2025. But once possible, it would present a much wider market opportunity.

“(That) could open the space for chemo-free treatment, or patients not having to go through stem-cell replacement, which is very toxic and very expensive as well,” said Willemsen.

Learning from the past

TT11 and TT11X are now front and centre of Tessa’s strategy. But years earlier, the company mostly made the news for its other asset, TT10, which targeted nasopharyngeal cancer.

In 2014, it kicked off a Phase 3 trial for TT10 with 330 patients, but decided to halt it in 2020 for technical reasons that had to do with how the trial was designed, said chief medical officer and chief scientific officer Ivan Horak. He emphasised that Tessa has learned lessons that it is applying to its current efforts.

Added Willemsen: “We are also a company that has grown and has learned from past experience… I’m very confident that Tessa will be viewed as a company with a much higher probability of this time, of making it to approval.”

The Business Times reported in 2017 that the company was mulling a potential initial public offering (IPO) on the Nasdaq, but this has not materialised.

An IPO in future could yet be a possibility, said Willemsen. But for now, Tessa is more focused on hitting the next milestones for its pipeline assets.

“CAR-T is not a scientific pipe dream, it’s already real… The question is only now, can we have the same transformational success in Hodgkin’s lymphoma that we already have seen in other treatments? And then more importantly, can we accelerate the speed to develop the allogeneic treatment? Because that I think, would be a tipping point,” he said.


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