[Updated 1/23/18, 11:21 a.m. See below.] Two therapies from the emerging field of engineered T cells won FDA approval to treat blood cancers last year, and the scramble is on to treat more types of cancer.
Led by Usman “Oz” Azam (pictured above), the executive who once led Novartis’s cell and gene therapy group, Tmunity Therapeutics aims to be a big part of that race. Azam says two of its T cell therapies are already in human studies for melanoma and prostate cancer.
One day after a major acquisition further shook up the field, Philadelphia-based Tmunity has announced a $100 million Series A to support its pipeline. Investors included China-based Ping An Ventures, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD), and Be The Match BioTherapies, the cell therapy subsidiary of bone marrow registry Be The Match. Penn Medicine and Lilly Asia Ventures, which provided Tmunity’s $10 million seed funding two years ago, also joined the new round. [Updated to clarify involvement of Be The Match BioTherapies.]
Azam left Novartis (NYSE: NVS) in 2016, a year before the firm notched the first-ever approval of a CAR-T therapy. CAR-T is the most advanced type of engineered T cell therapy so far. They require removing a patient’s T cells, engineering them into cancer killers, and then infusing the modified cells back into the patient. Last August, Novartis received FDA approval for tisagenlecleucel (Kymriah), a treatment for pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Less than two months later, the FDA approved Kite Pharma’s axicabtagene ciloelucel (Yescarta) to treat adults with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Some of biotech’s big players are moving in. Ahead of Kite’s FDA approval, Gilead acquired the Santa Monica, CA-based firm for $11.9 billion. Then Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) yesterday spent $9 billion for the 90 percent of T cell developer Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO) it didn’t already own.
After leaving Novartis Azam resurfaced a few months later with Tmunity, which tapped the University of Pennsylvania and professor Carl June for its T cell work—just as Novartis did several years previously for its historic program. June is a Tmunity scientific founder.
The first generation of CAR-T products have targeted CD19, a protein on the surface of cancer cells. CD19 is an ideal target for lymphoma and leukemia CAR-T therapies because those cancers express a great deal of the protein, and the side effects of wiping out the healthy cells that carry CD19 are manageable.
But finding good targets on solid tumors such as breast, lung, colon, skin, and prostate cancers, which make up the majority of cancer cases, is more of a challenge. These cancers have elaborate defenses in their immediate microenvironment. Azam says Tmunity aims “to go beyond CD19” to attack both solid and blood-borne tumors with additional technologies, including gene-editing techniques. Among the company’s goals are finding better ways to activate a T cell and mitigating the side effects that have accompanied immunotherapy treatments.
“We are not doing something that is a one-shot platform for a single unique target,” Azam said.
He declined to say when the company expects data from the melanoma and prostate studies. He said Tmunity will use the financing expand its workforce, further develop its technology, and restart the Philadelphia-area facility it had acquired from another pharmaceutical company in order to manufacture the cell therapies. Tmunity’s approach to cell therapy could have applications beyond cancer. HIV and immune system disorders are potential targets, though Azam says Tmunity’s main focus, for now, is on its cancer compounds.
Photo by Tmunity Therapeutics.