Skolkovo startup gets investment to test cure for HIV

Advanced Gene & Cell Technologies (AGCT), a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation’s biomed cluster, has received the first tranche of investment from the RBV Capital venture fund allocated to carry out Russia’s first clinical practice of genome editing to treat HIV. AGCT plans to use the investment, which totals 44 million rubles ($738,000), to draw up a raft of preclinical data to carry out pilot phase one and two clinical research.

RBV's Alexei Konov and AGCT's Marina Popova sign the investment deal at the 2017 Skolkovo Startup Village. Photo: Sk.ru.

The St. Petersburg-based company is developing a method to treat HIV by editing a person’s DNA. The aim is to treat patients with lymphomas (blood cell tumours) and HIV, for whom a bone marrow transplant is justified. The technology is based on altering the CCR5 coreceptor gene, which is responsible for the HIV virus’s entry to cells, inside the patient’s bone marrow cells. After the cells are extracted from the bone marrow and edited ex vivo to remove the CCR5 coreceptor, they are then transplanted back into the patient, where they enter the immune system and become impervious to the most common HIV subtypes.

“The use of genome editing in HIV treatment was discovered by chance, because there are some people who have a natural immunity to HIV via a gene mutation: that is to say, nature already invented a cure for HIV,” Marina Popova, AGCT’s CEO and founder, told a panel discussion held as part of Skolkovo’s annual Startup Village event last year.

Timothy Brown, known as the “Berlin patient,” is the only person in the world believed to have been cured of HIV. After he received a bone-marrow transplant in Germany for leukaemia in 2007, his HIV became undetectable, seemingly because the bone marrow donor harboured a rare mutation of the CCR5 receptor that gave them natural immunity. It is upon this case that AGCT’s technology is based.

If AGCT’s technology proves successful, it could mean that patients with HIV-associated tumours do not have to be given lifelong antiretroviral therapy. It could also be used to treat HIV patients who don’t have tumours but whose bodies have proved resistant to antiretroviral therapy, as well as patients whose immune cells have not started restoring themselves, despite antiretroviral therapy. It is a new approach to HIV treatment that the company says will relieve the burden on the health system and improve patients’ quality of life.

The investment from RBV Capital was announced on the stage of the Skolkovo Foundation's annual outdoor Startup Village last month. The foundation's investment service acted as a consultant on the deal.

“The involvement of RBV Capital, a professional venture investor, demonstrates trust in the AGCT team’s developments in the field of cell technologies and DNA editing,” said Popova in a press release announcing the receipt of the first tranche of financing.

Popova pictured at the Startup Village 2016, when her company won a prize of 2 million rubles. Photo: Sk.ru.

“Our research and development is carried out in close cooperation with the Pavlov First St. Petersburg State Medical University. Receiving financial support will enable us to take a step towards the application of the latest methods of genome editing in clinical practice,” she said.

AGCT works together with the state Agency for Strategic Initiatives and is taking part in the implementation of the National Technology Initiative, which provides it with the opportunity to work together with the Health Ministry on creating a legislative framework for the use of genome editing in clinical practice, the company said in its press release.

“AGCT is successfully developing innovative genome editing technologies for the treatment of HIV, and we hope that RBV Capital’s investment and our industrial expertise will enable the company to perform all the stages of clinical trials and get its breakthrough technology out onto the market,” said Alexei Konov, managing partner at RBV Capital, which was created with capital from both Russian Venture Capital, a state investment vehicle, and the private Russian pharmaceutical company R-Pharm.

The investment in AGCT is the venture fund’s fourth investment, and its first in Russia, said Konov.

Kirill Kaem, acting senior vice-president for innovations at the Skolkovo Foundation and head of its biomed cluster, said he was “really pleased with AGCT’s dynamic development.”

“The company’s project is unique in that it brings together the innovative technology of genome editing and expertise in the transplantation of bone marrow to treat haematological cancers. The company became a Skolkovo resident in 2015 as a result of winning the OncoBioMed competition, received support in the form of grants and mentorship, and won a prize at the Startup Village 2016. With the involvement of Skolkovo’s investment service, the company was able to attract a specialised investor. This deal is a good example of cooperation between various support mechanisms provided by the state and private investors,” said Kaem.