Immuno-oncology is all the rage these days, and it’s easy to see why. Breakthroughs in harnessing the power of our body’s natural defenses are unlocking new ways to fight cancer, and producing some of the most promising results the field has seen to date.
But it’s not as if someone has magically cracked the code already; cancer is a shifty, maddening foe, and there’s plenty of room for new ideas. A small, Lexington, MA-based startup called ImmuneXcite is built around one such notion: launching an immune assault on tumors by recruiting one of the body’s first lines of defense, cells known as neutrophils.
To be clear, it’s early days for ImmuneXcite and its technology. Today, at the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting in Philadelphia, the startup is talking up the results it’s seen in preclinical tests. The AACR limelight is occupied by therapies from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Novartis, and others that are already impacting patients. By comparison, ImmuneXcite likely won’t begin its first human clinical trials until next year, according to CEO Yaniv Bejerano.
But the startup’s approach is noteworthy. While most immune-based cancer treatments currently on or nearing the market focus on enlisting so-called T-cells, ImmuneXcite uses a molecule from a fungus to help coax neutrophils—an aggressive, invader-killing type of cell—into the fray as well.
That approach grew from a discovery made at the Whitehead Institute by Ifat Rubin-Bejerano (Bejerano ’s wife) while she was studying how neutrophils interact with fungi. Neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell, are one of the immune system’s first responders. They patrol the bloodstream and other tissues looking for infections, and once they find a bacterium or fungus, they swallow it up, kill it, and then self-destruct—which serves as an alert for other immune cells to race to the scene.
Neutrophils have never been effectively harnessed to combat cancer, however, in part because their aggressive nature makes them potentially dangerous. Activating a system-wide neutrophil attack could be disastrous; the trick is to recruit them in a targeted way, without overdoing it.
Rubin-Bejerano discovered the beginnings of a system for doing just that at the Whitehead. She took plastic beads, and coated them with various sugars normally found on the cell walls of fungi. The neutrophils were drawn to a specific sugar, beta- 1,6-glucan; it was neutrophil bait. She and Bejerano then took meetings with scientists and medical professionals to think of the best way to use that technology. An MIT investigator, Daniel Kohane, suggested chemically linking these sugars to an antibody, which could act as a targeting agent that would lead neutrophils to invaders they might not recognize otherwise—essentially the antibody would serve to attach the neutrophil bait right on to the surface of the targeted cells.
Kohane was specifically thinking of tuberculosis, which neutrophils don’t normally attack; But Rubin-Bejerano and Bejerano thought, what about cancer? The idea was particularly appealing because … Next Page »