AffyImmune attracts $30M with its CAR-T strategy for beleaguered solid tumor cancers

AffyImmune Therapeutics wants to avoid "beating a dead horse." The biotech aims to avoid toxicity and exhaustion issues associated with CAR-T cell therapies by using a "tune and track" approach that has now attracted another $30 million from ORI Capital. 

The Hong Kong venture shop—behind the likes of Orchard Therapeutics—picked AffyImmune out of "hundreds" of CAR-T cell therapy biotechs in 2018 and is doubling down with a second series A Thursday, said ORI founder Simone Song in an interview. AffyImmune previously raised a little more than $20 million, said Eric von Hofe, Ph.D., president and chief operating officer, in a separate interview. 

The Natick, Massachusetts-based biotech, founded in 2016, is attempting to squash many of the seven key issues hampering CAR-T therapies in solid tumors, said Song, who is also a board member. This includes toxicity caused by binding beyond the target, T-cell exhaustion, manufacturing complexity and other issues that impact solid tumors versus the more successful uptake in blood cancers. 

AffyImmune's  lead CAR-T asset is in a phase 1 clinical trial in anaplastic and refractory thyroid cancer. The biotech hopes to have "good phase 1 data" on that program in the coming 12 months and to expand the treatment's scope to include patients with gastric and triple negative breast cancer, the two leaders said. 

RELATED: Still chasing after an FDA nod, Orchard posts a long-term data win for its latest gene therapy

To achieve the company's goal to create a CAR-T therapy that specifically identifies tumor cells, not have an overreaching impact on normal cells and also curb exhaustion of the T cells, von Hofe explained that the affinity of the cells, or the strength by which the molecules interact or bind, are finetuned. 

“Most CAR-T cells have very high affinities, and this has really been kind of the story of cancer research and oncology treatment," von Hofe said. AffyImmune's treatment tunes the affinity so it's lower than most other CAR-T cells and monoclonal antibodies, the executive explained. 

The biotech also wants to avoid exhaustion of the T cells so they can extend the longevity of the immune cells. 

"If you have a very high affinity CAR-T cell, the issue with that is the immune cell can essentially become exhausted. It’s like beating a dead horse. It will identify a tumor cell, kill it, and then it stays stuck to it," von Hofe said. 

AffyImmune is able to track where the T cells are to ensure they're not attacking normal cells, causing toxicity to the good areas. 

"The track feature is also very important. It gives you the ability to visualize where CAR-T cells are localizing and expanding; therefore, if something goes wrong, the kill switch can be switched on," Song said. 

Beyond the first asset, AffyImmune expects to file for regulatory approval to bring its second CAR-T program into clinical trials early next year, von Hofe said. 

Once data come through, the biotech will look at potentially working with a larger biotech or pharma on co-development or combination therapy options, the president said.