Third Rock’s Latest, Jounce, Grabs $47M For Cancer Immunotherapy
Scientists have been striving for decades to find a way to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer, with only a couple of recent success stories to show for it. Now Third Rock Ventures, the Boston firm drawn to the biggest and edgiest ideas in biotechnology, is making its biggest up-front investment yet on cancer immunotherapy.
Cambridge, MA-based Jounce Therapeutics is the newest startup to come from Third Rock’s team, emerging from stealth mode today with a $47 million Series A financing commitment. The concept at Jounce is to build a pipeline of antibodies and other injectable protein drugs that can spark the immune system to fight cancer cells, much like it fights off viruses and bacteria that people encounter all the time.
While many companies have tried and failed to deliver on the promise of cancer immunotherapy, there have been a couple of important advances in the field the past few years. Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) won FDA approval in 2010 for the first treatment to actively stimulate the immune system to fight prostate cancer. New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) won FDA clearance a year later for an immune-based treatment against melanoma. Bristol-Myers also turned heads at last year’s American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting with an experimental immunotherapy for melanoma that scientists believe may disable a cloaking mechanism that tumors use to avoid immune detection.
While cancer can be bewilderingly complex at the molecular level, and differ dramatically from patient to patient, many once-skeptical scientists and drugmakers have come to believe that immunotherapy could someday become a standard approach for fighting various cancers, much like traditional surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted molecular medicines. About 1.7 million people are expected to be diagnosed with some kind of cancer in the U.S. this year, and about 580,000 are expected to die from it, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Here there’s an incredible opportunity because the immune system has memory,” says Cary Pfeffer, Jounce’s interim CEO and a partner at Third Rock. “The way the immune system works, there’s potential to provide really durable benefit to patients. It’s an incredible shift we’re seeing.”
Mitch Gold, the former CEO of Dendreon and now the founder of Seattle-based Alpine Biosciences, said that as recently as five years ago, there was little interest among Big Pharma companies or venture capitalists in cancer immunotherapy. But Third Rock’s investment in 2013 comes as little surprise, he says.
“The immune system is a very effective way of fighting cancer,” Gold says. “Just like with monoclonal antibodies, you’re going to see the next wave of immunotherapy technologies come out. Every pharmaceutical company is interested now in an immunotherapy platform. As far as they are concerned, you can’t not have it.”
Third Rock picked the name Jounce because it stands for a jolt or dramatic change in position, both in lay English and in a technical sense in physics, Pfeffer says.
The company traces its origins back about 16 months, when James Allison of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center talked about cancer immunotherapy at a Third Rock scientific advisory board meeting, Pfeffer says.
That got the venture team excited, he says, and work began on bringing together what a “dream team” of founders. They include James Allison and Padmanee (Pam) Sharma of MD Anderson; Tom Gajewski of the University of Chicago; Drew Pardoll of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Louis Weiner of Georgetown University Medical Center. Third Rock has three senior executives working on Jounce, including Pfeffer as interim CEO, Bob Tepper as chief scientific officer, and Bob Kamen as chief technology officer.
Rather than zero in specifically on one kind of immunotherapy, Jounce is looking to build a portfolio of product candidates that work in different ways. The company is intending to make antibody drugs and other … Next Page »