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Checkmate Pharma Clinches $27M for More Studies in Skin Cancer

Xconomy Boston — 

Checkmate Pharmaceuticals believes its approach to cancer treatment can make a certain type of immunotherapy work better, and it now has $27 million in additional funding to help build that case.

F-Prime Capital Partners, a new investor, led the Series B round of investment announced Thursday. Sofinnova Partners and venBio, who had invested in Cambridge, MA-based Checkmate’s Series A round two years ago, also invested in the latest round.

Checkmate’s lead drug, CMP-001, is an oligonucleotide, a type of drug that interrupts the cellular mechanisms involved in gene expression. The Checkmate drug is packaged within a virus-like particle, which is supposed to trick the immune system into mobilizing to fight tumors. Checkmate has been studying its drug in combination with Merck’s (NYSE: MRK) pembrolizumab (Keytruda), a so-called checkpoint inhibitor. This class of cancer immunotherapies work by blocking the PD-1 protein, which tumors use to evade detection by the immune system. But checkpoint inhibitors don’t work on everyone.

The Phase 1b trial is enrolling melanoma patients who have been treated with a PD-1 therapy, but whose cancers have either progressed or not responded to the therapy. Checkmate says combining its drug with pembrolizumab could increase the number of cancer patients who respond to treatment with a checkpoint inhibitor, and boost the magnitude and the duration of that response. At the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting last month, Mike Powell, a general partner at Sofinnova, suggested that the combination shows promise in a patient group whose disease is tough to turn around, saying that, “But when you see it, you know it is your drug doing it.”

Checkmate says that the new funding will allow the company to conduct advanced studies in melanoma, and also pursue other uses of the drug. The company emerged from stealth in 2015, helmed by Art Krieg, the former chief scientific officer of Sarepta Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SRPT). Krieg has particular expertise in oligonucleotide drugs from an earlier role as co-founder of oligonucleotide drug developer Coley Pharmaceutical Group, which was acquired by Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) in 2008. After that, he became CSO of Pfizer’s oligonucleotide therapeutics unit.

Checkmate also announced on Thursday that Karen Brennan has been appointed chief operating officer. Brennan was the vice president of clinical and development operations at Waltham, MA-based Forum Pharmaceuticals. Before working at Forum, Brennan held positions at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, the cancer drug unit of Takeda Pharmaceutical.

Image by Flickr user Omer Unlu via a Creative Commons license.