Celgene, Google ante up for Armo's next-gen IL-10/PD-1 immuno-oncology combos

Well along in the clinic with a mix of second-wave immuno-oncology programs in early-stage studies, Armo BioSciences has lined up $50 million in funding to pay for pivotal stage development.

Beth Seidenberg at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers led the way on the round, joined by OrbiMed, DAG Ventures and NanoDimension, as well as new investors HBM Healthcare Investments, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Celgene ($CELG), Industrial Investors Group and Clough Investment Partners.

They're backing a Redwood City, CA-based company that has carefully gathered the IP around an IL-10 drug in-licensed from Merck, which had in turn acquired the program in its big Schering-Plough buyout. AM0010  is supposed to help sensitize tumors for an immune system assault, a vulnerability that they are now pursuing with combos that include their newly acquired PD-1 checkpoint program.

"In our perspective, the first wave of immuno-oncology is set," says CEO Peter Van Vlasselaer. The first generation of checkpoint inhibitors clearly help a significant portion of cancer patients, he notes. But there are plenty of opportunities for those who can do better for a much broader patient group, with a strategy that is also designed to advance a new approach that the CEO believes can be much safer and more tolerable for patients. And that's where Armo intends to play.

The $50 million C round gives Armo enough cash to make it until the end of 2017, completing its range of early stage studies and positioning the company for upcoming Phase II/III studies that they can take to regulators.

One way the IL-10 lead drug works is by priming cancer cells for an attack by a swarm of targeted, tumor-specific T cells. It's a hot field, and one that has kept its syndicate's interest as the company sets the stage for a pivotal assault on registration-worthy data. A year ago that would have been a sure recipe for an IPO, but in this turbulent market, the CEO is keeping his options open about funding in the future.

"I think that in the last 6 months, there are not a lot of crystal balls that worked very well," says Van Vlasselaer.

- here's the release