Juno Therapeutics Grabs $120M to Coax Immune System to Fight Cancer
Scientists have tried for decades to coax the body’s immune system to hunt down and kill cancer cells, much in the same way it fights viruses and bacteria. The idea has always been to create a standard treatment against tumors that’s more effective and more tolerable than traditional chemo, radiation, or targeted therapy.
The new Seattle-based operation, named after the Roman goddess of protection, has raised the huge sum of $120 million in its Series A venture capital round. The money will enable Juno to carry out an audacious mission to make immunotherapies that it hopes can someday replace the older tools of the cancer trade. The company doesn’t intend to make a conventional pill in a bottle or targeted antibody drug in a vial. Instead, it plans to withdraw blood from individual cancer patients, re-engineer certain immune T-cells from each patient to turn them into super-aggressive cancer cell killers, and then re-infuse the “killer” T-cells back into the body. The great future ambition is to wipe out the tumors and create ongoing immune system memory and surveillance that can potentially keep cancer at bay for years.
Juno is built on a few different technologies that have been decades in the making at institutions such as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Arch Venture Partners and the Alaska Permanent Fund, through a partnership with Crestline Investors, are the main financial backers. The three research institutions each have equity or royalty stakes in Juno, although the exact amounts aren’t being disclosed.
The company, which has 11 employees so far, is led by CEO Hans Bishop, the former chief operating officer of Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN), the company that won FDA approval in 2010 for the first cell-based immunotherapy against cancer. Although Dendreon failed to live up to the hype in the marketplace with its prostate cancer immunotherapy, it mastered the manufacturing and logistics challenges that go with the territory in a cell-based cancer immunotherapy platform like the one being crafted at Juno.
“The big idea is in exploiting advances in understanding how to manipulate T cells to fight cancer,” said Larry Corey, the president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and co-founder of Juno. “The goal of our company is curative therapies for a wide range of cancers.”
Researchers rarely use words like that, and for good reason, because cancer cells are amazingly adept at developing resistance many of the best targeted drugs of modern molecular biology. Using strong words like “curative” can easily give patients false hope.
It will be years before anyone truly knows whether Juno can reach its goals. But the combination of technology, money, and people rallying around Juno is rarely seen in biotech. The scientific co-founders include Phil Greenberg, and Stanley Riddell from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Michael Jensen of Seattle Children’s Research Institute; and Renier Brentjens, Isabelle Riviere, and Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Rick Klausner, the former director of the National Cancer Institute and current chief medical officer of Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), is also a co-founder and member of the board.
“It’s been amazing to watch the last many decades of frustrations about immunotherapy and I must say how impressive it is that the diehards kept at it,” said Klausner, who did pioneering basic research on T-cell receptors in the early ‘80s at the National Institutes of Health. “I think we’re at a huge transition point where immunotherapy will be part of our clinical armamentarium.”
Juno is unusual for a biotech startup, in that it isn’t just hoping to extrapolate results from mice and rats into humans. It has been emboldened by the experience its scientific founders have had, especially over the past year, in treating about two dozen patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia and other malignancies who doctors thought had only weeks left to live.
The Juno researchers showed they were able to trigger a complete molecular response—which means no trace of cancer anywhere in the blood—for 15 of the first 17 patients (88 percent) with acute lymphocytic leukemia in an ongoing clinical trial, Bishop says. Full data haven’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal, or presented at a medical meeting, and Juno isn’t saying anything publicly yet about side effects, how long … Next Page »