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Immunotherapy Start-Up Launches Collaboration, Raises $65M

T-cells and cancer cells

Killer T-cells surround a cancer cell (NICHD, Flickr)

25 Oct. 2022. A new biotechnology company is creating cancer immunotherapies that it says harness more of the full power of T-cells in the immune system to attack tumors. Normunity Inc. builds on research in the lab of Yale University immunologist Lieping Chen, while partnering with the Chen lab to develop its treatments. And the company is raising $65 million in its first venture funding round.

Normunity, in West Haven, Connecticut and Boston, Mass., develops cancer treatments that seek to generate more full-strength reactions from T-cells, white blood cells in the immune system that cancers often block. Chen and colleagues at Yale study the biology of T-cells, their responses to antigens, and ways the microenvironment supporting tumors evade T-cell responses.

Chen’s lab is credited with discovery of PD-1/PDL-1 pathway that led to development of many current checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapies for cancer. In May 2022, Chen and colleagues published a study in the journal Science, identifying protein interactions that keep a subset of T-cells in a quiescent state, thus preventing T-cells from responding to the presence of pathogens.

“The normal immune system is a powerful anti-cancer force,” says Chen in a Normunity statement, “and effective immune-stimulating strategies can result in long-lasting cancer remissions, even cures. Yet, today’s immunotherapies don’t capitalize on the full anti-cancer potential of the normal immune system, and most cancer patients do not respond to available treatment options.”

Precision therapies with companion diagnostics

The Normunity technology aims to extend the Chen lab’s discoveries by identifying more mechanisms where the immune system and cancer interact. The company says it’s undertaking simultaneous testing of thousands of these immune system/cancer interactions, using human cells and tissue, to reveal targets underlying observable responses in the body. The results, says Normunity, are what the company calls immune normalizers that encourage T-cells to respond in their full-strength normal state when encountering cancer.

Normunity says its immune normalizers are precision therapies developed with companion diagnostics for treating cancer on their own or in combination with other drugs. The company says its lead product is a synthetic monoclonal antibody targeting an enzyme emitted by tumors and found at high levels in cancer patients that prevent T-cells from infiltrating tumors. Normunity says it demonstrated T-cell infiltration of tumors with this synthetic antibody in preclinical animal tests.

A feature of the company is a continuing collaboration with the Chen lab to reveal new cancer targets, mechanisms, interactions, and immunotherapies. “Working together with Normunity,” adds Chen, “we are finding previously hidden mechanisms of tumor-dependent immune disruption and we aim to usher in a new era of drug discovery for precision immuno-oncology with medicines that normalize immune function.”

Normunity was formed late last year with Rachel Humphrey as the founding CEO. “With our R&D model,” notes Humphrey, “we have established a first-of-a-kind collaboration with the Lieping Chen lab that has already been prolific in identifying and validating novel targets.”

The company is raising $65 million in its first venture finance round led by early-stage technology investor Canaan Ventures in San Francisco. Taking part in the round are Sanofi Ventures, Taiho Ventures, and Osage University Partners. Normunity plans to apply the proceeds to further developing its multi-discovery technology with the Chen lab, and advancing its lead programs to clinical trials.

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