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Ex-AstraZeneca Exec to Lead Surface’s “Next-Gen” Immuno-Oncology Plan

Xconomy Boston — 

Say “immuno-oncology” and investors come running these days. That’s because despite all of the advances biotechs have made harnessing the immune system to deal with cancer, there is still much we don’t understand about how the disease disarms our body’s defenses—and plenty to gain for those who can figure it out.

No surprise, then, that competition in the field is getting fierce, and new companies are steadily entering the fray—among them Surface Oncology, which has just brought in a former AstraZeneca cancer drug specialist to spearhead its plan.

Surface, a Cambridge, MA-based immuno-oncology startup that was formed about a year ago, is naming Detlev Biniszkiewicz its president and CEO. He’s stepping in for Dave Grayzel, a partner at Atlas Venture who served as Surface’s initial interim CEO. Biniszkiewicz (pictured above) is a former dealmaker at AstraZeneca’s oncology division, and was an executive at Novartis before that.

Jumping from two global drugmakers to a small startup like Surface is a big change. But Biniszkiewicz insists there are similarities. When he joined AstraZeneca in 2011, he says, he was “starting from scratch.” The big firm was undergoing a strategic shift and focused on catching up in the fast-moving immuno-oncology field. Biniszkiewicz played a role in that change (he declined to discuss specifics, noting more generally the academic collaborations and licensing deals he was involved with), and sees the same type of challenge at Surface.

“We’re in the beginning [at Surface], we need to build something,” he says. “I’m actually quite used to that.”

Surface emerged from stealth in January with a $35 million Series A round from a mix of venture firms, pharmaceutical companies, and others: Atlas, Fidelity Biosciences, New Enterprise Associates, and Lilly Ventures (the VC arm of Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY); Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research; the investment arm of Amgen; and former Bristol-Myers Squibb R&D chief Elliott Sigal. The startup currently has about 15 employees and is based in Kendall Square’s Athanaeum building (which is also home to the Xconomy headquarters).

Biniszkiewicz is taking the reins of a company that’s trying to go a step beyond where cancer immunotherapy is today. There have been major breakthroughs in the field with so-called “checkpoint inhibitors,” antibody drugs that remove a brake that otherwise stops the immune system’s T cells from destroying tumors. But those therapies—including the two approved drugs, Bristol’s nivolumab, (Opdivo) and Merck’s pembrolizumab (Keytruda)—have their limitations, and don’t work for everyone. Same goes for what’s known as CAR-T therapy, a method of genetically engineering a patient’s T cells to kill cancer. CAR-T has produced dramatic results for certain blood cancers, but a lot of work has to be done to figure out how to safely and effectively use the technique for more prevalent solid tumors.

Indeed, despite the hype and progress, we’re still in the early days of cancer immunotherapy—and there’s plenty of room for improvement. That’s why there’s been a dealmaking frenzy to find the best drugs to pair with checkpoint inhibitors, and a search to find new ways to stop cancer from eluding the immune system.

Surface is doing the latter. And if that strategy sounds familiar, that’s because it’s not alone—Third Rock Ventures startup Jounce Therapeutics, for one, has similar ideas. When Jounce raised $56 million a few weeks ago, CEO Richard Murray described Jounce’s focus as “next step” immuno-oncology.

Still, Biniszkiewicz says that there’s far less competition in this newer realm of immuno-oncology. “Many of the companies, especially large pharma companies, are really focusing on checkpoint inhibition and maybe some of the follow-ons,” he says.

Surface isn’t relying on a particular technology platform or drug discovery method to differentiate itself. Biniszkiewicz says the company is built more on the insights of a group of immunology and oncology experts from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (Sasha Rudensky), the University of Pennsylvania (John Wherry and Christopher Hunter), Yale University (Carla Rothlin), Harvard Medical School (Arlene Sharp), and the Cancer Institute of Montreal (John Stagg). These folks, all on Surface’s scientific advisory board, are involved “daily” on the progress of the company’s cancer drug prospects, he says.

Surface isn’t disclosing specifically what that group has helped it uncover as of yet, just that its drugs’ targets are involved in the tumor microenvironment, where the tumor and immune cells interact, and at the “intersection” of the immune system’s two parts: innate immunity (comprised of cells that act as first responders) and adaptive immunity (comprised of cells that learn to recognize specific threats). Biniszkiewicz says that Surface currently has six programs under consideration, four of which have “no known competition” and two of which have “very limited” rivals. The company aims to get a lead program ready for its first clinical trial over the next year.

“It’s all very new science, which makes the company very different,” he says.