Bright Peak Therapeutics debuts with $35M, cytokine pipeline, ex-Astellas CMO at the helm

Versant Ventures is unveiling Bright Peak Therapeutics, a biotech working to improve how proteins work as drugs. Led by former Astellas Chief Medical Officer Sef Kurstjens, M.D., Ph.D., the company comes out of stealth with $35 million from Versant, technology licensed from ETH Zurich and a pipeline of cytokine treatments for cancer.

Cytokines such as interleukin-2 emerged decades ago as promising cancer treatments, but native cytokines have barriers that limit their use. They must be given in high doses and can result in side effects like immunosuppression and vascular leak, where fluids and proteins leak from blood vessels into surrounding tissues, causing organ damage. What’s more, they have a short half-life, so patients need multiple doses a day.

Bright Peak has been using technology from the lab of Jeffrey Bode, Ph.D., at ETH Zurich to tackle these problems. The company has been working under the radar for two years on various pieces of the puzzle, including boosting the half-life of cytokines, fusing them to antibodies and creating masking strategies, which make the cytokines do their job under certain conditions.

RELATED: Sanofi's en route to more internal innovation, but M&A will tide it over: exec

The technology allows the company to make specific tweaks at any atom, as well as at multiple places, in a protein to make it work better. It also includes conjugation handles, which can be used to attach cytokines to each other as well as to other molecules such as antibodies. This way, Bright Peak’s new-and-improved cytokines may not only be used as drugs in their own right but also serve as the basis for further treatments.

“I’m excited to lead such a promising company with the potential to transform the field of protein therapeutics by developing products that possess markedly superior properties,” Kurstjens said in a statement. “Each molecule we design can become a portfolio within a protein, which speaks to the power of this technology platform.”

Bright Peak’s pipeline includes modified versions of IL-7 and IL-18 as well as IL-2. It has made three modifications to the IL-2 protein designed to limit side effects, extend its half-life and boost its effects on cell-killing T cells and natural killer cells.

RELATED: Simcha debuts with $25M to advance custom-built IL-18 for cancer

The company is 20 strong and aims to grow to more than 30 scientists this year. It plans to move its first program into the clinic in 2021. The $35 million series A from Versant will fuel part of that journey, but Bright Peak plans to supplement that with pharma partnerships and additional investors.

Bright Peak is far from the only player working to make cytokines work better as drugs. Nektar Therapeutics is perhaps the best-known member of the pack—it’s testing its prodrug of conjugated IL-2 with Bristol Myers Squibb.

Sanofi bet big on a synthetic biology approach last December when it ponied up $2.5 billion (€2.3 billion) to acquire Synthorx. Its platform, called Synthorin, is designed to provide the power of interleukins to turn the immune system against cancer without also triggering systemic side effects. The lead program, THOR-707, has a new amino acid at one position in IL-2 and is in development for multiple types of solid tumors. And Neoleukin has a different, computationally designed take on the IL-2 problem.