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Cancer Immune System Therapy Start-Up Raises $53M

T-cells illustration

T-cells (NASA.gov)

18 Nov. 2020. A company developing treatments that retune the immune system to kill solid tumor and blood-related cancers is raising $53 million in its first venture funding. Umoja Biopharma, a one-year old biotechnology enterprise in Seattle is spun-off from the labs of its scientific founders Michael Jensen, chief therapeutics officer at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and Philip Low, professor or chemistry and drug discovery at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Jensen’s and Low’s labs study reprogramming T-cells in the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. Umoja Biopharma’s technology extends that approach to rewire more of the immune system than T-cells as cancer fighters. And, says the company, its process works entirely inside the body, without reengineering T-cells in the lab, then infusing the engineered cells back into the patient.

The Umoja Biopharma platform works with the lymphatic system connecting lymph nodes to carry white blood cells throughout the body. With the lymphatic system, Umoja creates T-cells engineered to express chimeric antigen receptors, proteins attracting antibodies that bind to and destroy blood-related and solid tumor cancer cells.

These engineered T-cells, called VivoCAR T-cells, seek out targets called TumorTags, also part of the Umoja technology, that bind to tumor cells as well as the tumor’s surrounding microenvironment that usually hides tumors from the immune system. The company says VivoCAR T-cells can be accelerated or slowed with other FDA-approved drugs.

“This represents an important step forward in delivering on a shared vision to develop transformational therapies for patients who need them, including the most vulnerable population affected by debilitating diseases, children,” says Jensen in a company statement. “We now have the opportunity to combine forces and move at light speed, eclipsing what could have been accomplished singularly or in a normal academic manner.”

The company is co-founded by University of Washington immunologist Andrew Scharenberg, also the company’s CEO. “Our in vivo-based approach is scalable,” notes Scharenberg, “while also providing control, safety, and highly effective anti-tumor activity. Our goal is to improve both access and outcomes.”

Umoja Biopharma is raising $53 million in its first venture funding round, led by life science investors MPM Capital and Qiming Venture Partners USA. MPM Capital was also a seed round investor in the company. Joining the new financing is DCVC Bio, also a seed-round investor.

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