A2 Biotherapeutics uncloaks with $57M and tumor-targeting cell therapies

Another cancer-focused startup is joining the fray—A2 Biotherapeutics is launching with $57 million in series A cash to pursue cell therapies for solid tumors, an area in which CAR-T treatments and their ilk have run into difficulties.

The California-based biotech draws its funding from the likes of The Column Group, Vida Ventures, Samsara BioCapital and Nextech Invest. It will use its discovery platform to identify antibody and T-cell receptor fragments that bind to targets that may be challenging, but “definitively distinguish tumor cells” from healthy ones, A2 said in a statement. 

To draw the line between cancerous and healthy cells, the company is going after two classes of targets that are gained or lost in cancer cells. The first set is peptide MHC targets, which are created inside the cell and presented on the cell surface. The second class of targets is “irreversibly lost” in tumor cells. A2 is taking aim at them via modular cell engineering that will enable a more powerful version of the mechanisms used by natural killer (NK) cells. 

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“This approach has the promise of being utilized for multiple tumor types, providing solutions for many cancer patients. A2 Biotherapeutics has potent, highly selective binders that we combine into molecular constructs to integrate multiple signals and potentially provide a large therapeutic window,” said A2 co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Alexander Kamb, previously Amgen’s head of discovery research. 

Founded last year, A2 is already 40 strong, with staffers handling discovery, development and manufacturing in Agoura Hills, a city in Los Angeles County. It has four programs underway and expects to move its first treatment into the clinic and have its autologous cell manufacturing plant up and running in 2020. 

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“Our unique approach to targeted killing of tumor cells has the potential to create breakthrough cancer therapies that we look forward to bringing to patients, particularly those in need of new approaches,“ said A2 CEO Scott Foraker, Kamb’s Amgen colleague who spent 25 years at the company working in areas spanning licensing, R&D and biosimilars. 

Several players are working to get cell therapies, which have shown success in blood cancers, work better in solid tumors. Nkarta Therapeutics recently banked $114 million to propel its NK cell-based treatments into clinical trials. The company believes using NK cells rather than T cells could clear the hurdles that have limited the success of CAR-T therapies in blood cancers, including nasty side effects like cytokine release syndrome. 

The same week, U.K.-based Achilles Therapeutics picked up £100 million ($120 million) to run human proof-of-concept studies of its personalized T-cell therapies in two types of solid tumors: non-small cell lung cancer and melanoma.