Immuno-oncology has already delivered some game-changing new cancer drugs. Now Surface Oncology wants to be out front with what comes next
CEO: Detlev Biniszkiewicz
Based: Cambridge, MA
Clinical focus: Next-gen immuno-oncology
The scoop: The checkpoint inhibition breakthrough that has inspired so much immuno-oncology R&D activity is one clear step forward in the race to develop better cancer therapies. But it's a long way from the last step. New companies like Surface Oncology have been coming along to define better ways to make therapies that are safer and more effective. This next-wave biotech will be one to watch closely.
What makes Surface Oncology Fierce: Checkpoint inhibition is all about breaking links that allow cancer cells to escape detection from the immune system. But unleashing a T cell attack isn't always going to be enough to keep cancer in check. That's why you'll see plenty of new companies coming along to improve on the therapies, including the myriad of combination approaches that are now in the clinic.
Surface Oncology has a clearly defined, multi-pronged strategy to advance next-gen drugs. It's working on improving antigen uptake and presentation, blocking suppressor cells that populate the tumor microenvironment and heading off cytokines and metabolites that can blunt an immune system attack.
What really sets the company apart is its brain trust: Sasha Rudensky, chair of the immunology department at Memorial Sloan Kettering; Arlene Sharpe, an immunology expert at Harvard Medical School; the University of Pennsylvania's Christopher Hunter and John Wherry; Yale professor Carla Rothlin; former Bristol-Myers ($BMY) R&D chief (and investor in the company) Elliott Sigal; and John Stagg from the Cancer Institute of Montreal.
Putting stock in a brain trust over a platform technology will require some unusually effective teamwork from such a scattered group in order for this company to work. But freshly returned from an SAB meeting, Sigal says the company is making fast progress.
"Wayne Gretzky's famous phrase about hockey, 'skate to where the puck will be rather than where it has been,' applies over and over again in biopharmaceutical research," Sigal tells FierceBiotech. "When the immuno-oncology world was centered on checkpoint inhibition of T cells, Surface Oncology assembled experts of immune regulation focused on other cells in the tumor environment. A talented, seasoned internal team and great collaborations with each of these external laboratories has resulted in the timely development of a pipeline of therapeutic approaches with considerable preclinical data. In the coming year I imagine we are going to see both disclosure of some of the pipeline's exciting data as well as at least one corporate relationship."
The company's backers--who put up $35 million in a Series A round--recruited Detlev Biniszkiewicz, AstraZeneca's ($AZN) former oncology strategy chief, to run the company.
The A round may not have made the top 10 for a big year in venture financings. But the backers include some deep-pocketed players that are able to come up with more, as needed. With players like these, new introductions to potential partners will not be hard to come by.
Investors: Atlas Venture, Fidelity Biosciences, Lilly Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Amgen Ventures, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, and Elliott Sigal
Atlas seedling banks $35M to feel out the future of immuno-oncology
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