Life Sciences Insight

Merck oncology exec Haining pulls the trigger and goes full time at cell therapy player ArsenalBio

Dr. Nicholas Haining left academia in 2018 to lead discovery oncology and immunology at Merck. Now, after that brief time in pharma he’s hopping from to biotech, joining ArsenalBio, a cell therapy company he co-founded, as chief scientific officer. 

ArsenalBio uncloaked in October 2019 with $85 million to develop programmable cell therapies that work better and are simpler to design and manufacture than existing treatments. 

Unlike the first generation of T cell therapies, which are made using viral vectors to deliver payloads, such as instructions for a new T-cell receptor or chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), ArsenalBio is using CRISPR-based editing. The goal is to deliver larger DNA payloads to the cells so they have a “broader set of biological ‘software’ instructions” to get them to target and destroy solid tumors and blood cancers, the company said when it launched. 

Though the company’s first focus is cancer, ArsenalBio hopes to use its technology to develop immune cell therapies more broadly. It has kept other details close to the vest. 

Haining’s appointment comes four months after ArsenalBio expanded its team with Chief Financial Officer John Schroer and Chief Technical Operations Officer Tim Sirichoke, and six months after it struck a discovery deal with Bristol Myers Squibb.

Under the deal, ArsenalBio is discovering and developing preclinical candidates against multiple targets and BMS has the option to exclusively license those candidates to develop and commercialize. The Big Pharma handed over $70 million upfront, made an undisclosed investment in ArsenalBio and promised milestone payments if regulatory and sales goals are met. 

“I’m tremendously excited to be joining ArsenalBio as CSO,” Haining said in a statement. “ArsenalBio has laid out a vision and a roadmap for engineering the fate and function of T cells to help cure cancer. It will be a privilege to be part of the mission of transforming the best science into effective therapies for patients who need them most.” 

Haining completed his undergraduate and medical degrees at Oxford University and trained in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital, Boston and in pediatric hematology and oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Over the years, he has been an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an associate member of the Broad Institute, in addition to a physician-scientist at Dana-Farber. 

He joined Merck in October 2018 as vice president of oncology and and went on to found ArsenalBio alongside colleagues from the Broad Institute, the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Pennsylvania.