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Immunotherapy Biotech Gains $108M in New Funds

T-cells illustration

T-cells (NASA.gov)

1 Sept. 2021. A company developing more precise immunotherapies for cancer and other diseases is raising $108 million in its second venture funding round. Asher Biotherapeutics, a biotechnology enterprise in South San Francisco, has raised more than $163 million since it began two years ago, formed by life science venture investor Third Rock Ventures.

Asher Bio is designing immunotherapies that address a continuing problem from pleiotropy, a condition where changes in a single gene can affect multiple human traits. In cancer immunotherapies, pleiotropy can cause unintended changes in cells and tissue other than the tumors, when the treatment’s cancer targets are attacked. Asher Bio’s technology, called cis-targeting, addresses receptor proteins at two sites on surfaces of a single immune system cell, the therapeutic antigen target and a separate receptor that simulates immune responses, called an immunomodulator.

The company says it applies computational techniques to screen immune system cells and sub-types for therapeutic benefits, but also for possible unintended toxicities or reverse effects that block the therapy. Asher Bio then engineers selected immune system cells to produce cytokine enzymes that bind only on specific tumor targets and boost their potency.

Asher Bio’s technology is based on research by its scientific founders, immunologist Ton Schumacher at Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam and pathology/immunology professor Robert Schreiber at Washington University in St. Louis. Schumacher and Schreiber investigate neoantigens, unique sets of mutations expressed in cancer patients’ tumors, as cancer targets. Schreiber and colleagues design precise genomic techniques for targeting neoantigens characteristic of specific tumors, while Schumacher’s lab uses high-throughput genomic analysis to better target tumor neoantigens with T-cells in the immune system.

“A systematic, modular process”

The company’s first product, code-named AB248 is an engineered protein that addresses receptor pathways for cancer-killing CD8+ T-cells in the immune system for interleukin-2 or IL-2 cytokines. Various IL-2 forms are already approved for treating some metastatic solid tumor cancers, but because of pleiotropy, IL-2 can also stimulate other unintended immune system cell types. And, because of its short active lifetime, IL-2 is needed in high doses, which can be toxic, causing heart and blood damage.

“We designed our cis-targeting platform to leverage a systematic, modular process,” says Ivana Djuretic, Asher Bio’s co-founder and chief scientist in a company statement, “which can be applied across an array of immunomodulatory molecules and cell types. This enables us to continuously apply learnings from our research and development efforts across our earlier-stage portfolio, rapidly creating and de-risking additional programs.

Science & Enterprise reported on Asher Bio’s first venture funding round in March, raising $55 million. According to Crunchbase, the company also raised $150,000 in pre-seed funds at its formation in 2019. The new $108 million financing is led by venture investor Wellington Management Company in Boston, joined by existing investors Third Rock Ventures, Invus, Boxer Capital of Tavistock Group, Mission BioCapital, and new investors RA Capital Management, Janus Henderson Investors, Logos Capital, Marshall Wace, and Alexandria Venture Investments.

Asher Bio expects to apply the round’s proceeds to advancing AB248 through preclinical stages, leading to an investigational new drug application with FDA — in effect, a request to begin clinical trials — in the third quarter of 2022. The company also plans to apply the new funds to a second immunotherapy and invest further in its technology platform.

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