Cancer immunotherapy company Tizona Therapeutics is starting 2019 with a new CEO and a strategic collaboration with AbbVie that has swelled its coffers with a hefty upfront payment.
Scott Clarke takes over the helm of Tizona after a stint at Roche as global head of oncology partnering for Asia and emerging markets—having held several earlier roles at BioMarin—and as the company starts to progress its research programs toward the clinic.
It’s just filed for approval from the FDA to start trials of TTX-030, a CD39-targeting antibody that has attracted AbbVie’s interest and, according to preclinical data, seems to block an immune-inhibiting pathway in the tumor microenvironment.
AbbVie is paying $105 million upfront as well as making an undisclosed equity investment in Tizona to secure exclusive rights to TTX-030, which the two companies say is a first-in-class immuno-oncology drug that could restore and bolster immune responses against cancer cells.
CD39 is an enzyme expressed on the surface of tumor cells and tumor-infiltrating leukocytes that is responsible in part for converting extracellular ATP—the energy molecule for cells—to adenosine in the tumor microenvironment.
The enzyme is particularly prevalent where tumors are in low oxygen conditions, which seem to have an immune-suppressing effect linked to the release of large quantities of adenosine by dying cells. Blocking CD39 restricts the amount of adenosine and keeps ATP levels higher, which Tizona says leads to immune activation.
It’s a hypothesis backed up by preclinical data and yet to be tested in the clinic, but Tizona may now have the Big Pharma partner it needs to help take the project through to late-stage development. The San Francisco biotech will take the lead on a phase 1b trial, due to start in the first quarter, but AbbVie has an option to take over development thereafter.
“Tizona is poised to become a leading player in developing immunotherapies that target immune suppression, evasion and escape,” said Clarke after his appointment. The biotech has retained an option to co-develop and co-promote in the U.S.
Tizona isn’t alone in focusing on CD39, however, and has some competition looming from Innate Pharma and its development partner AstraZeneca, which took a $50 million option on its preclinical-stage candidate IPH5201 last October as part of a broader I-O partnership.
Arcus is also active in this area and recently signed a partnership with Japanese drugmaker Taiho for a range of I-O projects, while Surface Oncology has an anti-CD39 drug called SRF617 in preclinical testing.