Two or three years ago, most biotech pros would have scoffed if you had predicted a revival of cancer immunotherapy. Dendreon flopped, right?
Oh, how quickly things change.
Today, researchers have never been more excited about different ways to harness the immune system to kill cancer cells. Medical meetings saw a series of eye-opening presentations in 2013, followed by one of the richest biotech startup financings in history (Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics). Big pharma companies like Merck, Roche/Genentech, Novartis, and Bristol-Myers Squibb are pulling out all the stops to seize this opportunity.
So, no shocker here, I figure it’s time to do Xconomy Seattle’s next big life sciences event on “What’s Hot in Cancer Immunotherapy.” We’ll gather on the afternoon of April 22 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Here’s who you can expect to hear from:
—Hans Bishop, CEO, Juno Therapeutics. Say what you want about Dendreon, but Bishop was the chief operating officer when Dendreon proved that it could perform cell-based immunotherapy at commercial scale, which was no sure thing. That experience is the No. 1 reason why he was chosen to run Juno, and trusted to oversee a startup with $145 million to put to work in cell therapy manufacturing and a super-ambitious clinical trial plan.
—Robert Nelsen, Managing Director, Arch Venture Partners. Nelsen, the peripatetic biotech VC in search of what’s new and cool, once lost his shirt in an early-generation immunotherapy company called Xcyte Therapies. Now he’s back in immunotherapy as the VC architect of the massive Juno deal.
—Fran Heller, Senior Vice President, Business Development, Bristol-Myers Squibb. Heller is the chief dealmaker at the world’s current No. 1 immunotherapy company. Everyone in the industry is watching the development of ipilimumab (Yervoy) and nivolumab, a couple of antibodies that work to release a brake on the immune system and block a mechanism tumors use to escape immune surveillance. Researchers everywhere are dreaming of ways to combine their things with these BMS products, making Heller a pretty busy lady.
—Nils Lonberg, Senior Vice President, Biologics Discovery, Bristol-Myers Squibb. Lonberg knows the long saga of ipilimumab (Yervoy) development better than just about anybody. I look forward to hearing him talk about how this drug fits into the fast-growing landscape of immunotherapies.
—Chad Robins, CEO, Adaptive Biotechnologies. While many in biotech are angling to make the next Yervoy, those drugs don’t work for everyone. Someone needs to help researchers know which patients have immune profiles that make them likely to respond, or not. That’s one of the key roles Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies is playing for a growing number of pharma partners.
—Sarah Warren, Chief Scientific Officer, Oncofactor. Warren will be able to talk about the latest progress at one of the stealthy immunotherapy startups at the Seattle-based Accelerator.
—Rob Hershberg, CEO, VentiRx Pharmaceuticals. Hershberg will be able to talk about his company’s take on immunotherapy, which involves using small molecules to a part of the innate immune system known as TLR8. Seattle-based VentiRx is testing its lead drug candidate in a mid-stage trial of about 290 patients with ovarian cancer, as part of a collaboration with Celgene.
—Mitch Gold, Executive Chairman, Alpine Biosciences. Love him or loathe him, the former CEO of Dendreon will go to his grave as the guy who ran the company that developed the first FDA-approved cellular immunotherapy against cancer. And he is still in the immunotherapy game with a new startup that licensed technology from the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories. See this story from the Albuquerque Journal for more.
—Peter Van Vlasselaer, CEO, Armo Biosciences. Van Vlasselaer was one of the key early employees at Dendreon, before he moved on to other types of biotech companies, and formed a tight relationship with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as one of their repeat entrepreneurs. His latest venture is back in immunotherapy, with Redwood City, CA-based Armo Biosciences. The company recently raised $20 million in venture capital to develop Interleukin-10 as a cancer immunotherapy.
—Stan Riddell, Researcher, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Last, but not least, one of the prominent immunotherapy researchers in town has agreed to do the opening keynote talk. Riddell will provide an overview of the key scientific developments that have enabled so much of the current activity in the field. A full member of the Hutch since 1999, Riddell is one of the local scientific co-founders of Juno, along with colleague Phil Greenberg at the Hutch, and Michael Jensen at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
Space is limited in the Pelton Auditorium at the Hutchinson Center, so my advice to readers is to reserve tickets early for this national-caliber immunotherapy conference. Every week, there are exciting new developments in the field, so these speakers will have plenty to say.
Just yesterday, several of Juno’s scientific founders published clinical trial results in Science Translational Medicine that showed their “CAR-T” form of immunotherapy triggered complete remissions in 14 of 16 patients (88 percent) with one of the most dire forms of cancer—acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This wasn’t some mouse experiment—we’re talking about people who were only expected to live a few weeks or months going into complete remission.
Like I said, it’s an exciting time in the world of immunotherapy, and much of the action is happening here in Seattle. This event on April 22 will be one you don’t want to miss. See you there at the Hutch.