Californian biotechs sign neoantigen cancer vaccine pact

San Francisco

Two West Coast cancer immunotherapy biotechs, Immune Design ($IMDZ) and upstart Gritstone Oncology, have signed a research collab combining both companies’ leading immune-oncology tech.

The R&D pact will use Seattle- and San Francisco-based Immune Design’s ZVex discovery platform along with privately owned Gritstone’s genomics and proteomics platform to help find tumor antigens and then develop neoantigen-based immunotherapies.

This type of therapy is a burgeoning field in cancer research that seeks to develop personalized therapeutic cancer vaccines that use unique neoantigens--antigens which are foreign to the body, found in cancer--that can be used to spur a specific immune system attack tailored to the individual patient.

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Immune Design and Gritstone will be jointly responsible for development activities, with an initial focus likely to center on non-small cell lung cancer, according to the biotechs’ statement. The first clinical trial is expected to commence in 2017. No financial details of the deal were disclosed.

For the first study of their technologies, the two companies said that they are evaluating combining the Gritstone and Immune Design neoantigen vaccine with a checkpoint inhibitor (which one has not been made known), to “optimize the vaccine-induced immune response at several levels and maximize the likelihood of clinical efficacy.”

Neoantigens loomed large last year, drawing the attention of Moderna and biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who spent $50 million to buy control of Precision Biologics, which is also working on neoepitopes.

“The emerging tumor neoantigen field holds great potential for the successful application of cancer immunotherapies, and we are pleased to be working with Gritstone, a company that we believe is a pioneer in the field,” said Carlos Paya, president and chief executive officer of Immune Design.

“Having validated our two platforms in clinical trials targeting conserved tumor antigens, we believe their application to patient specific tumor antigens is a natural next step.”

“We are excited to work with Immune Design and their novel immunotherapy approach,” said Andrew Allen, co-founder, president and CEO of Gritstone Oncology.

“There is good evidence that viral vectors are one of the most effective means of generating high titer CD8+ T cells that recognize encoded antigens, and so this is a logical move for our company, as our neoantigen prediction platform starts to deliver immune targets for individual patients with lung cancer.”

This would follow along a similar path as AstraZeneca ($AZN), which in April announced it would combine its checkpoint inhibitor durvalumab with an experimental cancer vaccine from TapImmune in a midstage trial in certain ovarian cancer patients.

Third Rock startup Neon Therapeutics and its lead neoantigen candidate NEO-PV-01 has also allied with Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and its marketed and market-leading PD-1 drug Opdivo in a Phase Ib program, which will explore safety and look for early proof-of-concept data on melanoma, smoking-associated non-small cell lung cancer and bladder cancer.

Immune Design last year also struck deals with Merck ($MRK) and its Opdivo rival Keytruda, and Roche’s ($RHHBY) anti-PD-L1 star atezolizumab--which is set for its first and second license approval from the FDA this year--in a Phase II study for soft tissue sarcoma.

Gritstone launched just last October with a Series A financing of $102 million from a number of biotech investors, including Versant Ventures, The Column Group and Clarus Ventures.

Meanwhile, Immune Design is running programs with its immuno-oncology candidates CMB305 and G100. These candidates came from its ZVex and GLAAS platforms (which is designed to activate dendritic cells and galvanize an immune response)--the fundamental technologies of which were licensed from the California Institute of Technology and the Infectious Disease Research Institute, respectively.

Immune Design hasn’t had the best week, however, as its board director Brian Atwood--who also co-founded Versant Venture--stepped down from his position in late April. Atwood said he would resign from the board effective 15 June. In its 8-K form with the SEC, Immune Design stressed that his resignation was “not due to any disagreement with the company on any matter relating to the Company's operations, policies or practices.”

- check out Immune Design’s 8-K form

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