CEO named for first UPMC Enterprises’ Translational Sciences spin-out

David Apelian takes helm of T-cell therapies company BlueSphere Bio.

BlueSphere Bio, the first company to spin out of UPMC Enterprises’ Translational Sciences focus area, has named industry veteran David Apelian, MD, PhD, MBA, as the company’s CEO.

Dr. Apelian, a biotechnology and health care executive with more than 20 years of experience, will lead the immunotherapy startup as it focuses on creating personalized therapies for cancer.

BlueSphere was recently founded as part of UPMC’s $200 million initial commitment to the Immune Transplant and Therapy Center (ITTC). Co-founded by University of Pittsburgh researchers Mark Shlomchik, MD, PhD, Warren Shlomchik, MD, Constantinos Panousis, PhD, and Alex Rowe, BlueSphere’s technology includes the TCXpress platform, which is developing rapid, personalized T-cell therapies that harness a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.

The company has “unique technology and unparalleled scientific, clinical and corporate resources thanks to the financial strength and vision of UPMC Enterprises, and the world-class immunology expertise of co-founders Mark and Warren Shlomchik,” Dr. Apelian said. “They have developed a very efficient and rapid way of identifying specific T-cells that we can then use to create personalized and tumor-specific treatments for cancer.”

Calling his new position a “dream job,” Dr. Apelian told the Pittsburgh Business Times there are other types of cancer immunotherapies, including CAR-T cells and checkpoint inhibitors, but BlueSphere’s approach with T-cells is expected to be more effective in treating solid cancer tumors, such as lymphomas, carcinomas and sarcomas, and with fewer side effects.

T-cell therapies have taken the biotech industry by storm in recent years with the promise of a new weapon to fight cancer in addition to the standard regimen of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The market for these products was expected to reach $124.8 billion by the end of 2024, up from $37.5 billion in 2015, the Post-Gazette reported. What differentiates BlueSphere from competitors in this arena, says Dr. Apelian, is its ability to rapidly identify and select the most effective T-cells for fighting a particular patient’s cancer.

“Cancer was called the ‘emperor of all maladies.’ I think T-cell therapy is going to emerge as the emperor of all therapies if we can really understand how to personalize this,” he said.

While BlueSphere’s technology is still being developed, the goal is to get a therapy into the clinic for testing within the next two years. The company was founded with a $10 million initial investment from UPMC Enterprises and has a staff of about a dozen people.

Dr. Apelian replaces Rob Lin, PhD, a vice president in Translational Sciences at UPMC Enterprises, who had served as interim CEO of BlueSphere. Dr. Apelian joins BlueSphere from Eiger Pharmaceuticals in Palo Alto, California, where he served as chief operations officer and executive medical officer, providing medical oversight and strategic guidance on clinical programs.

Prior to Eiger, he held executive positions at Achillion Pharmaceuticals, GlobeImmune, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Schering Plough Research Institute. He also worked as a resident physician at New York Hospital, Cornell Medical Center.

“David brings a wealth of experience in managing biopharmaceutical companies, large and small, plus the clinical and scientific understanding needed to drive advances from the bench to the bedside,” said Jeanne Cunicelli, executive vice president of UPMC Enterprises in charge of the Translational Sciences focus area.

“We are excited to add David’s unusual combination of skills to those of the Pitt physician-researchers behind our breakthrough immunotherapy technology,” Cunicelli continued.

Dr. Apelian earned his PhD in molecular biology at Rutgers University before attending medical school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He completed his pediatrics residency at the New York Hospital, Cornell Medical Center. Board-certified in pediatrics, he completed his MBA at Quinnipiac University.