It’s not unusual for the team that founds a biotech startup to hand the reins to someone else once it’s time to take the next step. That’s where ImmuneXcite is, now that the Lexington, MA-based startup has gotten the support of some big-name investors.
The VC arm of Sanofi (Sanofi-Genzyme BioVentures), Cormorant Asset Management, and Partners Innovation Fund have pumped $8.6 million in equity financing into ImmuneXcite, a five-year-old startup with roots at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. The company has now raised a total of about $15.2 million in equity, with the previous cash coming largely from a group of angel investors.
As part of the financing, some new, experienced executives have come aboard. Eric Furfine, a former Eleven Biotherapeutics (NASDAQ: EBIO) executive, is now ImmuneXcite’s chief scientific officer and acting CEO. John Edwards, who’s spent more than three decades in biotech, has been named the startup’s executive chairman—the same role he has at U.K. biotech startup F-Star.
Furfine and Edwards have worked together before at Adnexus Therapeutics, which Bristol-Myers Squibb acquired for over $500 million in 2007. They’re now hoping for more success with ImmuneXcite, which was built around technology for tricking immune cells known as neutrophils into attacking tumors. The startup is likely two years away from its first clinical trial and has many important questions to answer about the safety and effectiveness of its approach.
Furfine says he’s had his eye on ImmuneXcite for years, and even did some free consulting work for the company here and there.
“They’ve grown a lot,” he says. “They have data suggesting that they’re leveraging a much broader array of what the immune system has to attack a tumor.”
Indeed, what makes ImmuneXcite’s technology a potentially interesting addition to the fast-growing and super competitive field of immuno-oncology is that it stirs up both the innate and adaptive immune systems. The innate immune system—of which neutrophils are a member—is the body’s first line of defense against a foreign invader. The adaptive system, as its name suggests, learns to remember these threats and stands ready to wipe them out if they return.
ImmuneXcite uses a specific sugar normally found on the cell walls of fungi, beta- 1,6-glucan, as neutrophil bait. The idea is to chemically link the sugar to an antibody, which could use its targeting power to lead neutrophils to a tumor and begin an immune system assault. Once activated, neutrophils help recruit other immune cells, including those of the adaptive immune system, to the battle. So one potential advantage here is that after an ImmuneXcite drug is administered, the body might learn to remember a tumor, and continue to kill cancer cells well after the drug is gone.
So-called checkpoint inhibitors, which have started to change cancer care, affect only the T cells of the adaptive immune system. They also only work in a fraction of patients, which is why many companies are testing other drug candidates in tandem with checkpoint drugs hoping for better results. A number of companies, like Boston area startups Jounce Therapeutics and Surface Oncology, are trying to draw out other members of the immune system, like macrophages, to fight cancer.
Furfine and Edwards are trying to figure out the best way to bring ImmuneXcite’s technology into the mix. To reduce their risks they’ll likely first try to prove the approach can work using a an existing cancer-fighting antibody—something like trastuzumab (Herceptin) or cetuximab (Erbitux)—as the targeting component.
Still, several key questions remain before ImmuneXcite even get to that point, and perhaps the most important one deals with safety. What if this approach creates too powerful an immune storm? And what if that storm rains down not just on a tumor, but other, healthy cells too? “We’ve not seen anything to suggest that there’s an issue,” Edwards says, but nonetheless ImmuneXcite needs to figure out if it can safely use its technology in people without something catastrophic happening. “That’s a big part of what we’re addressing now,” Furfine says, which is why it’ll likely take until 2018 for the company to begin its first clinical trial.
Part of the reason Furfine and Edwards joined ImmuneXcite was to make the company, as Furfine says, much more “venture friendly.” They made changes on the board—Jim Geraghty, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Third Rock Ventures, and Ann DeWitt, a senior director at Sanofi-Genzyme BioVentures are now members—and with corporate governance. Though many of ImmuneXcite’s angel backers participated in this round, they gave up all but one of their board seats to make it easier for the company to make strategic decisions. Scientific founder and former chief scientific officer Ifat Rubin-Bejerano has transitioned to ImmuneXcite’s head of research. And Yaniv Bejerano, the company’s former CEO (and Rubin-Bejerano’s husband), left ImmuneXcite in February, according to a spokesperson.
The hope is that ImmuneXcite will pick a lead drug candidate and prove enough with its preclinical work this year to entice other investors to buy in as well. Getting the backing of Sanofi’s venture arm, Cormorant, and Partners Innovation Fund was a start.
“Our intent is to go out to the venture community toward the latter part of this year and start talking about that next round when this data starts to emerge,” Edwards says.