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Immunotherapy Start-Up Gains $102M in Venture Funds

Lungs illustration

(National Cancer Institute)

20 October 2015. A new enterprise founded by researchers in the U.S. and Europe that aims to provide personalized cancer therapies harnessing the immune system raised $102 million in its first round of venture financing. The company Gritstone Oncology — in San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts —  says it plans to focus initially on developing treatments for non-small cell lung cancer.

Gritstone Oncology says its technology will develop checkpoint inhibitors, biologic therapies that activate immune system T-cells suppressed by cancer cells, personalized to the genomic composition of each patient. Much of the current research and development on immunotherapies, says the company, results in antigens — proteins that stimulate T-cell responses — shared across similar but not identical targets, which results in lower success rates fighting cancer cells.

In their case, says Gritstone, checkpoint inhibitors will target antibody generators reflecting the specific DNA composition of the patients’ tumors called tumor-specific neo-antigens or TSNAs. The company’s technology first evaluates DNA from each patient’s tumor with genomic sequencing and bioinformatics to identify the individual’s TSNAs. Gritstone then applies its own algorithms to identify the most likely TSNAs to activate an immune response, and delivers personalized synthetic TSNAs for the patient as a vaccine, either on their own or with other checkpoint inhibitors.

Gritstone’s scientific founders include Timothy Chan of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Naiyer Rizvi of Columbia University Medical Center also in New York, Mark Cobbold at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Graham Lord at King’s College London, and Jean-Charles Soria at South-Paris University and Institut Gustave Roussy in Paris. In March 2015, Chan, Rizvi, and colleagues published a study in the journal Science that found efficacy of immunotherapies were associated with a higher number of mutations in non-small cell lung cancer tumors, and in one case, tumor regression paralleled that individual’s tumor-specific T cell response.

The company plans to concentrate initially on therapies for non-small cell lung cancer. That type is the most common form of lung cancer, accounting for about 85 percent of all cases. American Cancer Society estimates more than 221,000 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. during 2015, affecting somewhat more men than women, leading to 158,000 deaths.

Gritstone’s first venture funding round raised $102 million. The round was led by life science venture capital companies Versant Ventures, The Column Group, and Clarus Ventures. Taking part were Frazier Healthcare Partners, Redmile Group, and Casdin Capital, along with undisclosed private investors.

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Hat tip: Fortune/Term Sheet

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